National Guard members deliver hot plates to Lawrence residents
LAWRENCE — Members of the state National Guard spread out across the Merrimack Valley on Saturday and delivered thousands of hot plates to residents left without gas service since a disastrous spate of explosions and fires more than a week ago.
But as officials look to mid-November before repairs are scheduled to be completed — and begin issuing space heaters Monday as a temporary measure — residents fear the coming cold weather.
Lisa Rodriguez, who received the first hot plate delivered on Springfield Street, said the help was “very special — it means a lot.”
But Rodriguez’s thoughts immediately turned to the coming cold weather. She’s planning to take a space heater when they are issued, but it won’t be enough.
“We just worry about winter. Hopefully, everything gets back on track before it starts getting cold, because then we have to start focusing on the pipes bursting,” she said. “Then we’ll probably have to evacuate. But I’m praying that doesn’t happen.”
On Friday, Governor Charlie Baker ordered the state National Guard to distribute 7,000 hot plates and 24,000 space heaters, and set a deadline of Nov. 19 for crews to replace 48 miles of old gas pipes. Officials suspect the cause of the Sept. 13 fires and explosions was excessive pressure in the pipes. The disaster left one Lawrence man dead, injured about two dozen, and sparked about 80 fires in the region.
The recovery project is focused on about 8,600 customers in Andover, Lawrence, and North Andover.
On Saturday, about 200 members of the state National Guard were mobilized to help make door-to-door hot-plate deliveries, allowing residents stuck without gas to cook again.
“A lot of these folks, they live in the surrounding areas of the Merrimack Valley. So it’s a chance for them to basically reach out and help their neighbors,” said Major General Gary W. Keefe, the adjutant general of the Massachusetts National Guard.
Deliveries of hot plates would continue Sunday, said Lieutenant Colonel Lisa Ahaesy, a Guard spokeswoman.
And on Monday, up to 600 Guard members will be ready to help deliver space heaters to residents left without gas service, Keefe said.
But each home provided with a space heater will need first to be inspected by firefighters and electricians, who will check smoke and carbon monoxide alarms, as well as electrical systems. Code inspectors will also check homes before gas service is restored.
The state fire marshal and the fire chiefs in the affected communities have been working with Columbia Gas to minimize the fire risk of the space heaters, “knowing that these are desperate times, and that people need to be able to cook and eat under these very unusual circumstances,” said Jennifer Mieth, a spokeswoman for the state fire marshal’s office.
Some of the earliest hot-plate deliveries Saturday were made to residents on Springfield Street. A Guard truck carrying about 250 hot plates was unloaded in the street, and Guard members, along with volunteers and Columbia Gas employees, handed the appliances to residents standing at their front doors.
Amber Cook, another Springfield Street resident, also worried about heating her home this winter.
“I’m hoping before the cold weather comes it could be fixed,” said Cook, as she held her young son Eli in her arms.
Ana Camareno, a Springfield Street resident, was concerned the cold weather is “going to be something really unbearable.”
Camareno, a former New York City Department of Homeless Services police officer who has breathing problems, said Columbia Gas should help residents cover costs incurred since the disaster.
After the gas disaster struck Sept. 13, she and her husband, Moises Caraballo, stayed in their Springfield Street apartment. But when electrical service was cut in the days afterward, they weren’t able to run a machine Camareno uses to help her breathe. Instead, they had to connect it to a generator Caraballo bought, he said.
In a separate interview, Caraballo said Baker should ensure that Columbia Gas reimburses residents.
“It’s Columbia Gas’s fault that we’re in this situation,” Caraballo said.
In a statement released Saturday night by the town of Andover, officials said Columbia Gas “has agreed to compensate all of its customers for all losses related to the Merrimack Valley gas emergency,” including bodily injury, property damage, and disruption of businesses.
In preparation for the massive repair effort, Columbia Gas held a job fair Saturday at the Greater Lawrence Technical School in nearby Andover with the goal of hiring temporary workers to assist work crews.
The hiring effort aims to bring on about 200 temporary workers, including plumbers, electricians, and bilingual speakers, said Ken Stammen, a Columbia Gas spokesman.
The bulk of the hires were expected to be bilingual speakers who are fluent in languages such as Spanish, Portuguese, and Vietnamese, he said. They will be paid $24 an hour.
Bilingual speakers hired by Columbia will assist in communicating with customers over issues including gas meter replacements, damage claims, and appliance repairs, he said.
“We want to be able to speak with them in the language that they’re fluent in, most comfortable in, because this is a stressful situation for them right now,” Stammen said. “Our focus right now is on helping people, taking care of them, [and] trying to restore their lives as soon as possible.”
Thomas Powers, a Spanish teacher at Andover High School, came to the jobs fair Saturday morning to apply for one of the bilingual speaker positions.
He grew up in Andover, where he teaches Spanish at the town’s high school, and now lives in Lawrence. The disaster left his home without power for several days, he said, and some of his students are still grappling with the aftermath.
It was important to him to join the recovery effort, he said.
“This is about family and community. That’s what I try to be about,” Powers said.