As alarm grows over the deadly Ebola outbreak in West Africa, families in Minnesota's large Liberian community are scrambling for plane tickets and visas to get relatives out of the stricken zone and at least two Twin Cities churches have canceled mission trips intended to deliver medical and other aid to Liberia.

"We decided to err on the side of caution," said Wynfred Russell, executive director of African Career, Education & Resource Inc. in Brooklyn Park and co-leader of a planned January trip of missionaries and public health volunteers. Instead of finishing work on a school under construction in northern Liberia, the group now plans to send money and equipment for the school and to prevent the spread of Ebola into the region.

Russell, a Liberian native, also is trying to help his brother escape the virus and travel to Minnesota. But flights are booked up and fares are skyrocketing, he said. "I know a number of people trying to get their relatives out," Russell said. "There is this wave of anxiety."

More than 30,000 people of Liberian descent live in Minnesota, primarily in the northwestern suburbs including Brooklyn Park, which is home to one of the largest Liberian populations outside of Africa.

About 200 people attended a Sunday evening meeting in Brooklyn Park, where state and city officials discussed the outbreak and its effect on the Liberian community in Minnesota, but repeated earlier assurances that a local outbreak was highly unlikely, even if an infected person came to the Twin Cities.

"We're not here tonight because of any fear that Ebola is coming to Brooklyn Park," said Brooklyn Park Fire Chief Ken Prillaman. Health officials said the disease is transferred only through direct contact with infected bodily fluids.

As a precaution, however, Brooklyn Park officials last week announced that firefighters and police officers will wear eye shields and facemasks, as well as gloves, when responding to calls involving flulike symptoms. That policy, which some residents feared could stigmatize members of the city's large Liberian population, sparked sharp discussion at a meeting last week and again on Sunday.

Anxiety in local communities has grown since Patrick Sawyer, who works for the Liberian government and whose wife and three daughters live in Coon Rapids, died in Nigeria on July 25 — the first American to die from Ebola. Sawyer last visited Minnesota about a year ago and planned to return in August.

Sawyer's widow, Decontee Sawyer, spoke at Sunday's meeting, urging community members to help with relief efforts and make sure fear doesn't lead to stigmatization, as in the case of a local Liberian woman who said she was sent home from work on Saturday because she was sneezing.

"Let's not turn our backs against our brothers and sisters who are already struggling from this tragedy," Sawyer said. "I understand the fear. Good people are afraid, but lets not let that fear turn into something worse."

Health officials at Sunday's meeting reassured Minnesotans that in order for a person to be infected with Ebola, he or she must have traveled to the affected West African region within the last 21 days, be experiencing the related flulike symptoms, and have been in direct contact with fluids from an infected person.

Appeals for support

While some groups have canceled travel to West Africa, other Liberian organizations, local churches and nonprofits have heightened efforts to send financial and medical support.

Global Health Ministries, a grass-roots Minneapolis-based Lutheran organization, has been shipping sea containers with medical supplies to two hospitals in Liberia for several years. They recently received an urgent call from the country's minister of health asking that they send personal protective equipment, said Scott Lien, director of operations.

"We're being asked to do more of what the big organizations should be doing," he said.

Thanks to donations from Fairview Health Services, Allina Health, and several local churches, the organization plans to airlift five large containers of gowns, masks, gloves and other materials to Liberia, a shipment costing Global Health Ministries an extra $10,000.

But Lien said the hospitals can use as much help as they can get. Nurses are leaving hospitals in fear of getting infected. Four have already died at Phebe hospital, one of the centers in northeast Liberia where Global Health Ministries sends supplies.

The Rev. Linda Koelman, a pastor at North United Methodist Church in Minneapolis, planned to help lead the January trip to work on the Liberian school project. She has traveled to West Africa more than 20 times, and in February took a team to the border of Guinea and Liberia, leaving right before the outbreak began. "I have a lot of friends over there … everybody is worried," Koelman said.

In Chaska, Cornerstone Mission Liberia raised $7,000 to build a school in a village about 25 miles from Monrovia, Liberia.

Annetta Daidii, the project's founder, said she planned to buy a ticket last week to oversee the development of the school, but her travel agent advised against it. Now she worries about sending large sums of money without monitoring the work herself. "I have everything on hold right now," Daidii said. "It's really a sad situation."

Children's Surgery International, a Minnesota nonprofit, has canceled a trip to Firestone Duside Hospital in Liberia, where the team of nurses and doctors has traveled annually for five years to perform reconstructive surgeries.

"These are difficult surgical cases that they collect over the year," said Peter Melchert, medical director for the organization. This year, he said, "these kids aren't going to get that care."

For many Minnesotans, the potential consequences of the spreading epidemic are even more direct and dramatic.

Denise Butler, a Brooklyn Park resident, has been trying to bring home her mother, a Liberian citizen who raised Denise and her family in Minnesota. Lady Butler, 57, lives in Liberia and had planned on visiting her family in Minnesota in June. She has been applying for a visa for the last three months, but has been denied because of the backlog of applications, Denise Butler said.

Lady Butler owns a funeral home in Painesville, Liberia. Although she has not yet received any bodies infected with Ebola, she is afraid that she could soon become exposed. "We pray that no bodies will make it to the funeral home," Denise Butler said. "I'm very scared."

Samantha Schmidt • 612-673-4641