Nederland church opens its doors after explosions

After residents of neighboring Port Neches had to be evacuated following an explosion at a chemical plant, First Baptist Church in Nederland operated a shelter from 2 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Thanksgiving Eve. (Photo courtesy of Jason Burden)

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NEDERLAND—When a pastor receives a phone call before 2 a.m., it’s almost never good news. Even so, Jason Burden found reason to give thanks—after the fact—for the early morning call he received the day before Thanksgiving.

When the American Red Cross asked the Nederland Police Department for a place to house evacuees from Port Neches, First Baptist Church in Nederland opened its facilities. (Photo courtesy of Jason Burden)

When an explosion at the Texas Petroleum Chemical plant in Port Neches forced the evacuation of homes in its immediate vicinity, the American Red Cross asked the police department in Nederland, about 10 miles away, to locate a facility to shelter evacuees.

The police called Burden, pastor of First Baptist Church in Nederland, to ask if the church could provide shelter.

“It was a non-decision as far as I was concerned,” Burden said. “I went to the church about 2:00, unlocked it and waited for the arrival of some of our neighbors from Port Neches.”

First Baptist in Nederland made its facility available for disaster relief and recovery previously after Hurricane Harvey and Tropical Storm Imelda. Texas Baptist Men volunteers had left the church only a few days before the blast in Port Neches, after working on rebuilding projects for residents affected by the storms.

“We’re just grateful we have the capacity to serve as a host in these situations,” said Burden, who recently was re-elected as first vice president of the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

Church hosts neighbors from Port Neches

An evacuee from Port Neches sleeps on a couch at First Baptist Church in Nederland. (Photo courtesy of Jason Burden)

The first few evacuees from Port Neches arrived within a few minutes after Burden arrived, and they continued to trickle in throughout the night and into the next day, he said.

By daybreak, as area residents learned about the shelter at First Baptist Church, they began responding, bringing donuts and other breakfast treats for evacuees, Red Cross personnel and first responders. At noon, a local Chick fil-A donated chicken sandwiches for lunch.

As dark billowing smoke filled the sky and began blowing toward the Gulf, residents of Groves who were concerned about air quality also left their homes and arrived at the shelter in Nederland.

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“At any given time, we probably had about 20 people. While the shelter was open, we probably had 40 to 50 people come through the church,” said Burden, who spent a 12-hour shift at the church from 2 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Shelter open until Nederland evacuated

After the immediate crisis was over in Port Neches, the Jefferson County Public Health Mobile Clinic set up at First Baptist Church in Nederland to offer health screenings and vaccinations on Dec. 3. Pastor Jason Burden is pictured with Rachel Dragulaki, a church member and nurse. (Courtesy Photo)

The shelter remained open until about 5 p.m. on Nov. 27. At that point, a second explosion at the chemical plant prompted a Jefferson County judge to expand the mandatory evacuation area to include Nederland, as well as Port Neches, Groves and part of Port Arthur.

So, First Baptist closed its shelter and evacuees who had no other place to go were encouraged to move to a shelter at Ford Park in Beaumont.

“We moved up our Thanksgiving plans” by several hours, Burden said, noting he and his family went to visit relatives in Central Texas—first in Iredell and then in Brownwood.

After the mandatory evacuation order was lifted Friday, he and his family returned home on Saturday to prepare for worship services the next day.

On Sunday, the events of the previous few days dominated conversations in hallways and Bible study classrooms, Burden noted.

“The common denominator in all the discussions was how merciful God was,” he said.

The explosions caused only a few injuries and no fatalities, he noted.

“Because of the timing, nobody was on the road. Businesses were closed. Schools had been out for a few days. We are so thankful there was no loss of life,” Burden said. “If it had been any other time, it could have been very different.”

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