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Lawrence residents demand answers at Columbia Gas open house

Jennifer DeJesus, 26, held her daughter Amalia DeJesus, 1, as she asked a question at Lawrence High School during a Saturday open house for those affected by the gas explosions. Michael Swensen for The Boston Globe

LAWRENCE — Carolina Mane and her family rise at 4:30 a.m. each day so everyone can take a shower in their Andover hotel room before heading out for the day.

Her three children go to school, and she sits vigil at their cold house in Lawrence until she reports to work — waiting for Columbia Gas to make the repairs needed to make the residence habitable. The routine so far, Mane told gas utility executives Saturday afternoon, has been frustrating and fruitless.

“You can’t do anything. For us, it’s like when you’re in the prison in your house. You can’t enjoy your life anymore. You can’t do anything because you have to be like a statue, waiting for somebody. You don’t know who or when they’re coming,” said Mane, drawing applause from some in the audience at Lawrence High School.

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Representatives from Columbia Gas and its parent company NiSource heard dozens of stories Saturday from residents facing similar hardships as they conducted community meetings in Andover, Lawrence, and North Andover. The company also held similar events last month.

“We know that this is going to be increasingly frustrating as we get into the holiday season,” Pablo Vegas, NiSource’s chief restoration officer, told the crowd.

Columbia Gas said it plans to restore service to the 8,400-plus customers affected by the gas fires and explosions by Dec. 16, about a month after the company’s initial deadline.

For Thanksgiving, the company said it plans to provide more than 20,000 meals, including turkey, stuffing, and pie, which residents can either pick up or eat at three community dinners planned in Lawrence at the Elks Lodge and inside heated tents at South Common and Pemberton parks, where displaced families are living in trailers. The company will also provide a dinner at the Andover Senior Center.

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“It’s what they should do,” said Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera, who had heat restored at his home Saturday. “Nothing can replace Thanksgiving dinner at your own table at home with your family, but absent that, they have a responsibility to give people some comfort that day and they’re going to try.”

The fires and explosions on Sept. 13 flattened five homes and caused fires at 125 structures. One person was killed when a collapsing chimney fell on him, two dozen others were injured, and thousands were evacuated.

The National Transportation and Safety Board has tentatively identified the trigger for the disaster as an errant sensor that allowed high-pressure gas to overwhelm local networks.

Vegas and Joe Albanese, the retired Navy captain tapped by Governor Charlie Baker to lead the recovery effort, updated residents on their progress restoring heat and hot water at homes and businesses.

Columbia Gas said it has restored gas service to about 39 percent of residential customers and 58 percent of business customers. The utility said it has received 23,049 claims and paid out more than $50 million so far.

As of Thursday, 2,121 families had been placed in alternative housing. The number of plumbers on the job has surpassed 1,000, and the company has enlisted more help to process claims, officials said.

But frustration continues for many.

Mane said her family was shopping in New Hampshire Saturday morning when she got a call from a man who said he was outside her house to do repair work on the residence, which has been stripped of appliances. She said she promised to be there in 25 minutes, but when she pulled up, no one was there.

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Mane said she called the man back and he said he didn’t know when he’d return.

“Sorry. For your situation I can understand how frustrating it must be to not know when. That’s not our protocol,” Albanese said.

He met with Mane after the meeting and had a colleague record her address and the phone number of the person who called her.

Mane’s 13-year-old daughter, Carol Mane-Perez, said living in a hotel is taking a toll.

“I’m in eighth grade and that’s a lot of pressure,” she said in an interview. “I’m supposed to start applying for high schools and start to figure out my future and this is just adding even more pressure and I’m starting to crumble under it.”

In North Andover, Dianne Hinckley said she paid $1,900 for an electric hot water heater that was installed last month, but still hasn’t been reimbursed.

She said her heat has been restored, but she doesn’t have a working stove or clothes dryer and was told she would only be reimbursed for two takeout meals each week.

Her adjuster, Hinckley said, has “cross examined” her about expenses she wants reimbursed.

“I feel like I’ve been over-thanked and I feel like I’ve been over-apologized to. That’s starting to grate on my nerves,” she told the executives. “I want an oven. I want a dryer. And I want my bills paid.”

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Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.