Metro

In Merrimack Valley, all aspects of everyday lives are disrupted

North Andover, MA--10/18/2018-- Linda Battalagine stopped home to feed her cats and pick up her son before heading to the Manchester, New Hampshire hotel that they're staying in after being displaced by the Columbia Gas fires and explosions. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff) Topic: Reporter: Milton Valencia
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
Linda Battalagine stopped home to feed her cats and pick up her son before heading to the Manchester, New Hampshire hotel that they're staying in after being displaced by the Columbia Gas fires and explosions.

MERRIMACK VALLEY — The cold ultimately drove Donna Sanchez from her home. That, and the relentless chore of boiling water on a hot plate so the family can bathe.

With no heating since the Columbia Gas catastrophe, Sanchez, her son, and two grandchildren moved into an encampment of trailers for displaced families in a Lawrence park.

“It’s just overwhelming, when you want to be home and can’t be,” she said, pausing over a cigarette to reflect.

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More than a month after gas fires and explosions ripped through the Merrimack Valley, Sanchez and thousands of Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover residents have had seemingly every aspect of daily life disrupted. They’re tired, frustrated, and uncomfortable as temperatures dip into the 30s. The landscape is a mess, with streets and lawns torn up by construction workers, the barricaded roads and detours creating traffic backups and making even the simplest errand take forever.

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On Salem Street, across from the trailers on South Common Park, Yesenia Guerrero waited one recent afternoon for her 7-year-old autistic son to arrive home on his school bus. It was late — again — and her son would probably miss his upcoming therapy appointment.

“What we’re going through, it’s mental, it’s physical,” Guerrero said, pausing to gaze on the rows of trailers. Recovery workers tell her they are racing to restore gas service, but judging by the growing number of families she sees living in the trailers, “it doesn’t feel like anytime soon.”

The noise is constant; jack hammers thunder away from early morning until late into the evening. The homebound take sponge baths or shower at the local Y, and at night don layers of sweat shirts and sweat pants and sleep under electric blankets, some nursing heat from a few small space heaters.

And meals from a crockpot. Night after night, another crockpot recipe.

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Linda Battalagine toughed out the cold in her North Andover home — until she got pneumonia. After going back and forth with Columbia Gas over expenses for food and lodging, she and her two teenaged children were put up in a hotel — more than 30 miles away from their school, in Manchester, N.H.

Her first morning there, it took three hours to get to her job in Watertown. Her daughter drives herself and younger brother to school. The family reconnects at their North Andover home late in the afternoon and checks on the cats. And then they drive back to New Hampshire.

“Our lives aren’t our own anymore,” said Battalagine, who is hoping to soon relocate to a closer hotel. “What they’re doing, it doesn’t make up for the inconvenience and suffering we’re all going through.”

She and other residents say Columbia Gas has at times provided inconsistent information about the restoration effort — and sometimes none at all.

Gail Sears, 72, and her husband have been waiting out the cold in their Waverly Road home. Each day, she checks the computer for an update on when her North Andover neighborhood will have an inspector assess their homes — an indicator she uses to determine whether to stay in the house or head to a temporary shelter. Her street once popped up on the Columbia Gas 72-hour advance notice list, and then it disappeared. Still no sign of an inspector.

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“It’s the lack of communication,” Sears said. “None of us know what to anticipate, so we don’t know what action we should take.”

Joe Albanese, the retired Navy Seabee commander brought in to oversee the restoration effort, said he sympathized with the residents. But he stressed the extraordinary —and unprecedented — amount of work involved in restoring gas service before winter.

Officials have a Nov. 19 target date.

“This is a first class team that’s working really hard to solve this problem,” Albanese said Friday. “There’s a lot going on, it’s a huge impact . . . we understand that.”

He also acknowledged work plans have shifted at times, but said they were changed to prioritize the most needy, including the elderly and families with young children, as well as getting local businesses reopened quickly.

“It’s not just a contingency engineering effort, this is as much a humanitarian effort as well,” he said.

Lawrence, MA--10/16/2018-- A woman wheeled her luggage to one of the trailers she has temporarily moved into in South Lawrence. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff) Topic: Reporter: Milton Valencia
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
A woman wheeled her luggage to one of the trailers she has temporarily moved into in South Lawrence.

The efforts have been mixed, as some residents and businesses begin to see gas restored, and others remain out in the cold.

A few blocks from the Searses, another elderly couple, the Cains, had their gas restored last week, earlier than expected, because of their age. It took several days of disruptions, with workers trooping in and out of the house, to check equipment, to check the wiring, often late into the night.

It got cold the night before the gas service finally came back, and 77-year-old Pat Cain said she was practically sitting on a space heater to keep warm.

“We’re one of the lucky ones,” her husband, Dick Cain, 81, said from the Herrick Road home, down the street from where another house exploded last month. “A lot of people are worried it’s going to be a long wait.”

Around the corner on Tyler Road, Gina Armano’s front lawn is dug up, a new service line in place. The sound of jack hammers and a massive hole in the street give her hope gas service is coming back soon. But new appliances haven’t been connected and assessed yet, and Armano said Columbia estimated it will be another three weeks — Nov. 7 — before the gas is working.

Armano was dressed in sweat shirt and sweat pants, and had positioned two space heaters and a two-burner portable stove in a common area by the kitchen, with a pile of blankets handy.

“We’ll stay here, until it’s dangerous, and the pipes freeze,” said Armano, a retired volunteer coordinator at a local therapeutic riding center.

Over on Beverly Street, Michelle Mills Hannay wakes with the jack hammers. She runs through crockpot recipes, and navigates around North Andover “taking this road, then that road, then this road, then that road.”

“You just roll with the punches,” she said while unloading groceries from her truck, pointing to the construction crew and detour signs a block away. “You’ve just got to change your way of doing things.”

For Chantel Gonzalez, 24, and her mother, Carmen, that means trips between their home on Springfield Street in Lawrence and the temporary trailers, carrying supplies in plastic bags. They wait out the hours in between inside their car because it’s warmer than inside their house.

The routine is similar for Ivan Jusino and his family, who have also decamped to one of the trailers in Lawrence. After work each day, the 50-year-old swings by Abbott Street to check on his house and the dogs. The trailer, he said, has been a respite.

“I want a good bath,” Jusino said, and then pointing to his wife and 20-year-old daughter, added, “It’s a hard situation, for everyone.”

Lawrence, MA--10/16/2018-- Oly Figueroa (R) kissed one of her nephews as she and her friends Carmen Gonzalez (L) and Chantel Gonzalez hung out together in their car. "It's warmer outside than it is in the house." said Carmen Gonzalez who had recently moved into a trailer but was coming back to Springfield Street to collect some things with her daughter. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff) Topic: Reporter: Milton Valencia
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
Oly Figueroa (right) kissed one of her nephews as she and her friends Carmen Gonzalez (left) and Chantel Gonzalez hung out together in their car. “It’s warmer outside than it is in the house.” said Carmen Gonzalez who had recently moved into a trailer but was coming back to Springfield Street to collect some things with her daughter.

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@
globe.com
. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.