NORTH ANDOVER — Merrimack Valley residents working to rebuild their lives following this month’s deadly gas disaster demanded the utility responsible step up aid efforts and make it easier for residents to obtain financial help for repairs.
Kim Oswald, a North Andover woman whose husband, Donald, is battling terminal cancer, said she is struggling with Columbia Gas of Massachusetts to get gas heat restored to her family’s home.
“I’m nervous, I get upset, I’m scared because of his health,” Oswald told the Globe on Saturday.
More than two weeks have passed since the Sept. 13 disaster that left one dead, dozens injured, and thousands facing a massive and lengthy recovery project.
But some residents, like Oswald, are frustrated with how Columbia Gas of Massachusetts has dealt with the recovery, which includes replacing miles of underground pipe and repairs to thousands of homes.
Oswald juggles the responsibility for working to get Columbia to restore gas service as she cares for her husband, who has been battling cancer for the past two years and receiving treatment at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. He is at home now and wants to remain there with his family, but he won’t be able to when the weather turns colder, she said.
A Columbia Gas representative was supposed to come to their home Friday to determine if gas service could be turned back on, but never showed up, she said.
Oswald had a message for company leadership.
“I would ask them to come to my house, to check it out, and to make sure I can turn on my heat so my husband can be home comfortably,” Oswald told the Globe. “You don’t know what the future holds for him right now, and I just want him to be in our house with my family.”
Residents who spoke at a press conference outside of North Andover town hall Saturday afternoon, including Oswald, said they were frustrated with having questions go unanswered, calls left unreturned, and uncertainty about when they’ll get their gas service back.
Marci Green of Andover told reporters that she is concerned that there is a lack of a “credible plan” for restoring heat and hot water to residents. Green and her family have been without gas service since the disaster, she said.
“Patience with a good plan is one thing. But expecting patience and understanding when there is no good, solid plan... is a very different story,” Green said.
State Representative Diana DiZoglio, who lead the press conference, said the utility cannot rely on volunteers and local officials to notify residents with updates on the recovery effort.
“It’s the responsibility of Columbia Gas to do their job,” DiZoglio said. “We’ve been patient — do your job.”
DiZoglio is among a group of state lawmakers who chastised Columbia Gas in a Sept. 28 letter to executives, calling on the utility — and its parent company, NiSource — to act with “a greater sense of urgency” in helping residents.
“Time truly is of the essence and these men, women, and children cannot tolerate any more inefficient communication or delayed responses,” according to the letter. “You have explicitly and implicitly acknowledged this urgency but your companies’ follow-through has not fully reflected it,” the letter said.
The letter, signed by DiZoglio, along with fellow representatives Frank A. Moran and Juana B. Matias, as well as state senators Bruce E. Tarr and Barbara L’Italien, was addressed to Stephen H. Bryant, the president of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, and Joseph Hamrock, president of Columbia’s parent company, NiSource.
In the days since the Sept. 13 disaster, which left one Lawrence teen dead, dozens injured, and explosions and fires burning across the region, many residents struggle to rebuild their lives, lawmakers said.
The letter credited reimbursements that have been made as residents purchase new water heaters, furnace equipment, and major appliances, plus the work of front-line crews working to restore gas service.
“But, the information and resources provided to residents has been incredibly inconsistent, we believe, because your frontline workers are not receiving clear and consistent messages from those at the top in your company,” the letter said.
Lawmakers blasted the utility’s leadership for not keeping residents up-to-date on repair efforts, or responding quickly to questions or to people filing damage claims, according to the letter.
“These affected residents deserve to know what to expect moving forward. They need to know what the proper process is for obtaining assistance and if and when they will be reimbursed,” according to the letter.
Lawmakers also called on the company to cover the costs of replacing damaged heating and hot water systems up front for residents who do not have the “financial capability” pay for those service themselves and then seek a reimbursement.
Among those seeking that kind of financial help is Oswald who said her family can’t afford the $11,500 upfront cost for repairs to their home, and then seek a reimbursement.
Lawmakers said the company should create a webpage that would serve as a central point of information about recovery efforts for residents, plus expand outreach to include phone and mail services to residents who do not have Internet access. They also want the utility to add more customer service representatives to field questions from residents.
The letter to the utility said the company must address the potential for power outages during cold weather storms, which can strike as early as October, lawmakers said.
Residents are “not confident” Columbia Gas will be ready, the letter said.
“People are deeply worried that digging cannot continue under such a scenario,” the letter said. “Columbia Gas must be prepared for this.”
Anxiety over how Columbia Gas is handling recovery extends to social media, where more than 800 people have joined a Facebook group established to share information said one of the organizers, Maureen Taylor of Andover, in a phone interview.
The Facebook page, set up about five days ago, allows residents to offer each other emotional support, according to Taylor, who is a retired nurse.
Officials have set a Nov. 19 deadline to complete the recovery project, but residents are not confident that Columbia Gas can meet that goal, she said.
“People are pretty devastated,” Taylor said. “There is no promise that things will be finished and the heat will be turned on by Nov. 19.”
For her part, Oswald said she wants the heat back on so her husband can remain at home with their children.
“I just hope they do something,” she said. “I’m scared.”
John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.