Cold weather wins in race to restore gas service in Merrimack Valley
LAWRENCE — For two months they have toughed out the weather and stayed home, despite having no heat or hot water, using an electric stove and extra blankets to get by. But by Wednesday, as the coldest night of the season was set to fall across the Merrimack Valley, Cleonice Fazzolari had hit her limit.
Cold to her bones, Fazzolari finally sought out the hotel room for herself, her husband, and son that Columbia Gas has offered for victims of the Sept. 13 explosions and fires.
“I don’t like to be in hotels, I like to be in my bed,” the 62-year-old Lawrence resident said pointedly. “We didn’t think it would have been this long, we thought it would have been resolved.”
With temperatures expected to drop into the teens at night, and snow in the forecast, the reality of what was feared two months ago has begun to settle in: the race to return service to Andover, Lawrence, and North Andover before the onset of cold weather has come up short.
“It’s the weather that concerns us and brings us here today,” Lawrence Mayor Daniel A. Rivera said Wednesday at a news conference in a tent at the temporary trailer park on South Common Park, where more than 120 families have taken up shelter. The tent shook with the winds.
“We are still in a disaster zone,” the mayor said. “It’s not normal, what’s happening here.”
By Wednesday, Columbia Gas reported that it had restored service to half of the roughly 8,400 metered customers who lost service after the disasters. But Rivera estimated that nearly 1,100 families in Lawrence who are still without gas service remain in their homes, and he urged them to heed the weather and go to one of the hotel rooms or trailers the utility has made available.
The south side of South Lawrence is home to some of the state’s poor residents and oldest housing stock, and the conditions of those homes have slowed the restoration process. In many cases, the task of replacing gas appliances in basements has meant reconfiguring entire electrical and gas systems.
But residents who remain in those homes, Rivera warned, risk more calamity if they load up on space heaters that could overwhelm older electrical systems and start a fire, a concern officials identified at the onset of the recovery effort.
“Just because you’re at home, with electricity, doesn’t mean you’re the most safe,” the mayor said.
While Columbia initially estimated that it could restore gas to all of those affected by Nov. 19, the company recently pushed that target date back for thousands of residents to Dec. 16.
Lawrence Fire Chief Brian Moriarty said residents should follow precautions when using electrical devices: Do not use extension cords, and keep them at least three feet away from combustible items, he said.
“What we want to do is caution people from doing things that are unsafe,” he said.
But on Abbott Street in Lawrence, where crews for Columbia Gas were working Wednesday, many residents said they aren’t going anywhere.
Lawrence Hester, a retired building inspector, had secured a hotel room in Bedford, but decided it is too far away. His tenant in his two-family home, a mother with a young child, chose to leave.
On Wednesday, he wrapped insulation around the pipes in the now-empty apartment, and ran a space heater; the machine recorded the temperature at 46 degrees.
“You gotta do what you gotta do,” Hester said.
A block away, Joseph San, 26, and his father, 66, sat in a cold apartment with a space heater on. San said his older brother suffers from anxiety, and they did not want to leave the apartment.
“It will be hard for our family just to go to a hotel,” he said.
Kyle Ducharme, a custodian in the Lawrence school system, has had Columbia crew members and inspectors at his home in recent days and is betting that gas service will come soon enough to not go to a hotel.
“I’m crossing my fingers,” said Ducharme, who lives there with his wife, son, and dog, with the help of space heaters.
Fazzolari, meanwhile, was reluctant to leave, but felt she had no choice: She has kept the stove door open to heat her apartment. But she turns it off at night, and it gets cold.
“You’ll see your breath at night,” said her husband, Thomas Baca.
Even so, Baca doesn’t want to stay in a hotel, away from work, and is considering staying at the house.
“I may just tough it out,” Baca said.