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The classic slogan for Firestone tires was “where the rubber meets the road.”
When it comes to Ebola, the rubber met the road at the Firestone rubber plantation in Harbel, Liberia.
Harbel is a company town not far from the capital city of Monrovia. It was named in 1926 after the founder of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, Harvey and his wife, Idabelle. Today, Firestone workers and their families make up a community of 80,000 people across the plantation.
Firestone detected its first Ebola case on March 30, when an employee’s wife arrived from northern Liberia. She’d been caring for a disease-stricken woman and was herself diagnosed with the disease. Since then Firestone has done a remarkable job of keeping the virus at bay. It built its own treatment center and set up a comprehensive response that’s managed to quickly stop transmission. Dr. Brendan Flannery, the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s team in Liberia, has hailed Firestone’s efforts as resourceful, innovative and effective.
Currently the only Ebola cases on the sprawling, 185-square-mile plantation are in patients who come from neighboring towns.
Long rows of dappled rubber trees cover Harbel’s landscape. Prevailing winds cause the adult trees to lean westward. Back when Firestone was still based in Ohio, employees used to joke that the trees are “bowing to Akron.”
When the Ebola case was diagnosed, “we went in to crisis mode,” recalls Ed Garcia, the managing director of Firestone Liberia. He redirected his entire management structure toward Ebola.
Photo: At Firestone’s plantation, workers gather at a shelter in the rubber tree forest, where buckets of sap are collected for processing.(John Poole/NPR)