The simulation was not real, but the water was, as part of this training event. Photo by Julianne Couch

When I heard that local emergency officials in Jackson County, Iowa, were going to simulate a freight train derailment on the tracks in front of my house early Saturday morning, my immediate thought was Block Party.

What could be more fun than inviting neighbors to my big wrap-around front porch, mixing a batch of Bloody Marys, and greeting the volunteers. They’d be coming to tell us about the “emergency” and that we’d need to evacuate in case of toxic chemicals and the possibility of explosion, but we could choose to evacuate in place.

Then I realized it wasn’t all that funny.

Freight train derailments have been making national news in recent days, including in Washington D.C., in which 16 cars went off the tracks, some of them leaking sodium hydroxide or ethanol. Closer to home along the Upper Mississippi River, freight trains carrying ethanol have jumped their tracks on both the east and west sides of the river, leaking fuel into the river or its tributaries. The geography here is unglaciated bluff country, with thick timber leading to mostly undeveloped waterfront. Derailments in areas like this that leak fuel and toxic chemicals aren’t usually immediate threats to human life and property like they are in urban areas. But they create environmental consequences to the river and riparian areas.

A young neighbor secures her Yorkie against potential danger. Photo by Ronald K. Hansen
A young neighbor secures her Yorkie against potential danger. Photo by Ronald K. Hansen

The tracks that pass along the western side of the Mississippi River, including through Bellevue, are owned by the Canadian Pacific Railroad. About half a dozen freight trains come through town each day. Some carry ethanol, others crude oil, still others coal, scrap metal, new cars, new John Deere heavy machinery. The cars bear enough spray painted graffiti to keep an army of taggers busy for months. Although train speeds through town are restricted to 23 miles per hour, engineers are allowed to increase to cruising speeds of about 45 miles per hour as soon as the front engine passes the edge of town. That leaves a mile worth of tankers, box cars, gondolas, and hopper cars picking up speed along the way. Under those conditions, a derailment is not only possible in town, it seems likely.

Broadly speaking, as Daily Yonder reported on February 12, 2016, from 2008 to 2014 the number of railroad tank cars carrying hazardous materials like crude oil increased from about 10,000 to nearly half a million. In 2015 there were 304 railway “incidents” involving hazardous materials while in transport, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. In rural areas, the first responders to a rail accident are likely to be volunteer fire departments. That means the folks who would need to deal with the possibly horrific consequence of a train derailment in this town are my friends and neighbors.

Bellevue’s Lyn Medinger is coordinator at Jackson County Emergency Management. He is working with the Jackson County Coalition for Emergency Preparedness to help both first responders and residents know what to do in case of an “incident.” In a story published before the exercise in the Bellevue Herald-Leader, Medinger said the simulation will help responders with a “tough scenario.” Put another way by Sarah Hobbs, a registered nurse with a county community health agency also involved in the training, “The mock derailment and HazMat exercise is designed to establish a learning environment for participants in order to exercise plans and procedures for containment of hazardous materials, evacuation of the affected area, security of the area, mock evacuation of school in evacuated area, mock shelter of evacuees, and an increased number of patients for EMS and Jackson County Regional Health to care for.” This quote in the Bellevue Herald-Leader gave me the impression of white coats and clipboards, women with their hair in neat buns and men in orange traffic control vests. Maybe a porch party would be in order, after all.

Derailment Day dawned cool, cloudy, with a few sprinkles, and a power outage at promptly 7:30 a.m. Was this part of the simulation not previously disclosed to the public in order to put a sense of urgency into all involved, I walked confidently up Second Street a few blocks north to where the simulation was setting up. Bellevue’s mayor, Christopher Rolling, caught up to me on the sidewalk, so I asked him. Nope, turns out the power outage was an unrelated coincidence. After about 15 minutes, power was restored. Another neighbor joining our sidewalk conversation noted that the power outage made the whole thing a little too real. “I haven’t made my coffee yet,” she said.

The author's block was just at the edge of the danger zone, as these cones indicate. Here a coincidental train passes through town while the simulation was being conducted. Photo by Julianne Couch
The author’s block was just at the edge of the danger zone, as these cones indicate. Here a coincidental train passes through town while the simulation was being conducted. Photo by Julianne Couch

It wasn’t long before the real deal got underway. I left my husband to man the command post at our house and prepare to photograph the action, while I walked north into the heart of the incident. At the first row of orange cones blocking a side street I asked the volunteer firefighter there if the cones meant that no toxic gasses would flow beyond it. He allowed as how we’d probably be all right. As I got closer to the command center I wondered where the train was. I hadn’t expected an actual derailed train. But I thought maybe an engine and a few tankers would be stopped on the track, for verisimilitude. Instead, the “leaking” was coming from a semi-tanker the railroad provides for training purposes. It was parked along the road, adjacent to the tracks. And it was leaking.

I was not the only disaster tourist walking unabated toward invisible non-existent fumes. I was joined by elderly couples, kids, dogs, a reporter/photographer team from the Dubuque paper 25 miles up the road, and David Namanny the editor of the Bellevue Herald Leader. We stood a little distance from the command center where the mayor, city manager, Jackson County emergency officials, and other first responders sorted out communication and responses to the emergency they were simulating.

With at least a dozen fire trucks, ambulances, police and sheriff vehicles and even a rescue boat prowling the Mississippi River a block away, it did feel like something big was going down. There was something like 40 emergency responders, other crews from nearby municipalities, as well as an ambulance dispatched to take a “victim” to the county hospital, some 22 miles away. When the firemen had hooked hoses to the hydrants and began dousing imaginary fires, we were very glad not to be in the way.

Along my route I met a group of hot and tired looking young firemen who’d been trudging door to door in full gear alerting neighbors to the “derailment.” They paused a moment to visit with me, and I asked if all of this would make them more prepared if the real thing actually happened. Talk turned from a sense of levity about rousing people out of a quiet Saturday morning, to a sense of reality the simulation brought them. “Absolutely,” one of them responded, adding that communication had been challenging but good to work through when the stakes weren’t high.

I looked into the young and sincere faces of those four young men and thought about how lucky this rural farming community is to have people in this age group still in town at all, let alone willing to train and volunteer to be first responders. The next time they gather on a day like this it might not be for a simulation. All our lives are in your hands. Cheers!

Julianne Couch is the author of The Small-town Midwest: Resilience and Hope in the Twenty-First Century. She has lived in Bellevue, Iowa since 2011.

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