Merrimack Valley residents voice frustration with recovery effort
LAWRENCE — A day after learning that recovery work in the Merrimack Valley could stretch another month, residents frustrated with the pace of restoring gas service following a deadly string of fires and explosions in September demanded on Saturday that officials do more to help them resume their normal lives.
“I wanted my voice to be heard, just like everybody else does,” resident Lori Pruitt-Olson told recovery officials during an open house at Lawrence High School hosted by Columbia Gas, which was responsible for the debacle. “So please don’t forget about us. We may be Lawrence, but we’re proud, and want things done.”
Hundreds of Lawrence residents gathered at the open house to hear from recovery leaders Saturday afternoon, while tables were set up nearby to help residents through the claims process set up by Columbia officials. Similar sessions were held Saturday in Andover and North Andover.
Since the Sept. 13 gas disaster, repair crews spread out across the Merrimack Valley have spent the past several weeks replacing miles of gas pipeline and repairing thousands of buildings.
The National Transportation and Safety Board tentatively identified an errant sensor as the trigger for the explosions, allowing high-pressure gas to overwhelm local pipelines
The resulting fires and explosions left one man dead, dozens injured, and thousands of gas customers in Lawrence, North Andover, and Andover without service as the cold weather returns to the region.
Part of the repair effort in the region has been aimed at replacing appliances, repairing homes and buildings, and restoring gas service.
But residents say work has been marred by poor communication and information sharing from Columbia Gas, leaving many uncertain when their homes would have gas service restored.
Robert Ciccolini of Lawrence told recovery officials that they need to give residents firmer dates on home repairs. He missed two visits from work crews when they showed up unannounced, he said.
“I’m looking at a map that gives me 3½ weeks where you may show up to do the inside of my house work,” Ciccolini told officials. “I can’t take 3½ weeks off from work and just be hanging around.”
Pablo Vegas, the chief restoration officer for the project, said three new construction firms have joined the recovery effort, and committed to better outreach to customers, including weekly progress reports starting Nov. 5 and an online map with work schedules starting this Monday.
“We have let you down, and for that, I apologize,” Vegas told residents in Lawrence of the delays in restoring gas service.
He said every customer who will not have gas service restored by Nov. 19 will be contacted by phone and e-mail to determine what help they will need, including temporary housing needs.
He said that in some cases, damaged boilers and furnaces will be repaired — rather than replaced — to expedite the recovery. The appliances would then be replaced at a later date.
The open house came a day after officials announced the self-imposed deadline for completing the recovery effort was pushed back to Dec. 16, nearly a month after the original date.
In some cases, repair crews were slowed by additional work needed to make some homes safe before gas service was restored, said Joe Albanese, who was appointed by Governor Charlie Baker to lead the recovery.
Katty Alcantara, whose Lawrence home has been without heat since the disaster, said Columbia Gas still has time to improve the recovery effort.
“At this point, what matters to me is what they do different from today on,” she said in an interview at the high school. “They need to do more for the community.”
Alcantara had to leave her home with her husband and two children as the weather got colder. Now she and her family have been living in hotels — four different ones in the past week, she said.
Alcantara, who speaks English and Spanish, said in an interview that more needs to be done to reach out to non-English speakers.
“I think Columbia Gas should step up and say, ‘Here we are, what can [we] do for you?’”
For some residents, a lack of communication with Columbia Gas has been the most frustrating part of the recovery, said Joyce Sawyer, a Lawrence resident.
But in its haste to wrap up repairs, Columbia Gas could be creating new headaches for some already burdened residents.
“It’s just crazy. We go one step forward, and three steps backward,” Sawyer said in a phone interview earlier in the day. “I understand that these people are under pressure, but people’s lives are at stake.”
On Saturday, her husband, Lance Sawyer, spent the day with his hired plumber tearing out gas service lines previously installed by a Columbia Gas contractor in their two-family Gorham Street home.
The contractors’ work would not have passed inspection, their plumber told them, Sawyer said.
“These guys are working their butts off ... but quality of work is important,” Sawyer said.
The couple said residents are finding it easier to get information by asking crews working on homes or in the streets.
That’s how the Sawyers found the contractors who installed their gas service lines, Lance Sawyer said. They saw the crew working on a neighboring home.
Lance Sawyer just walked over and asked if they could work on his home next, he said.
Lance is an electrician by trade, and believed the contractors’ work was poorly done — a judgment he said was backed up when his plumber arrived Friday to install a boiler.
Once repairs to their home are complete, he expects Columbia Gas to foot the bill.
“We’re not getting any satisfaction. I’m not letting their plumbers back in my house,” Lance Sawyer said.