By late October — five weeks after gas fires and explosions rocked the Merrimack Valley — the struggle to restore gas service to tens of thousands of residents was moving at a snail’s pace. Hundreds of plumbers had been brought in, but they were reconnecting only 50 or so homes a day. Only about 500 of the 8,000 affected customers of Columbia Gas had seen their service restored.
With cold weather fast approaching, the mayor of Lawrence and the town managers of Andover and North Andover gathered at North Andover Town Hall for a meeting. They needed a Plan B.
“You could just feel it was not going in the right direction,” said North Andover Town Manager Andrew Maylor.
In a week’s time, the three officials would join Columbia Gas representatives and Governor Charlie Baker at a press conference in Lawrence to announce a new approach: Two additional contractors would be hired, as well as hundreds more plumbers.
The work accelerated — dramatically. This week, just over five weeks after the new plan was unveiled, officials expect to announce that gas service in the Merrimack Valley has been effectively restored, short of last-minute fixes.
The quick turnaround, though, has raised questions about why Plan B wasn’t Plan A. Why did thousands of people have to spend Thanksgiving in trailers or hotels in New Hampshire?
“Why couldn’t they get it right before?” said Gail Sears, 72, a retiree who lost one of the tenants in her three-decker home because there was no gas. Sears ultimately hired private contractors and sought Columbia’s reimbursement, deciding she could no longer wait. She had service restored the first week of November.
“They had no way to track who has done what,” she said. “It was chaos.”
From the outset, Sears and other residents on social media groups and in community meetings criticized Columbia Gas for poor organization and failing to communicate with residents and public officials.
But last week, Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera for the first time also blamed Gilbane Recovery Services, a subcontractor that Columbia tapped to help oversee parts of the restoration. The mayor suggested the company was “gold-bricking,” or allowing workers to milk the plentiful, lucrative plumbing work while residents were out in the cold.
“Gilbane Recovery Services bears responsibility and, as such, should be investigated,” the mayor told a US Senate investigative committee.
A spokesman for Gilbane would not comment and referred questions to Columbia Gas, the lead contractor. The company would not address the mayor’s allegations against Gilbane.
Columbia has attributed the delay in work to a variety of problems, including poor building conditions, and the sheer scale of the project.
Dean Lieberman, a spokesman for Columbia, said in a statement that the “undertaking hasn’t been perfect.” But he said decisions to improve the work rate were occurring before the new plan was put into place in late October, calling it a “constant and continuous effort.’’
“Throughout October, the leadership team made multiple decisions at multiple inflection points to augment resources, find efficiency, and adapt to the significant challenges we faced on everything from code violations to hazardous materials and beyond,” he said.
Elizabeth Guyton, a spokeswoman for the governor, who has overseen the effort, said the goal has been “getting residents back to normalcy as safely and efficiently as possible” after the Sept. 13 explosions.
In late September, Columbia and Joe Albanese, a retired Navy commander Baker appointed to oversee the restoration, set a deadline of Nov. 19. But the alarmingly slow pace soon became apparent, and demoralizing to everyone working to fix the situation.
By late October, Gilbane-led crews had reconnected only 7 percent of the roughly 8,000 metered customers who lost gas, improving by only increments each day. On Oct. 19, 16 meters were connected, when 100 were scheduled; by Oct. 20, 50 of the 150 meters on schedule were connected.
On Oct. 21 — a Sunday, when more local plumbers were available, and charged weekend rates — 114 meters were reconnected. The next day, the number dropped again to 44, and 53 the day after.
Along the way, the company put out daily briefings that listed preparations for alternative housing for residents, a glaring reminder that crews were losing the race against the arrival of cold weather.
About 8,000 residents at one point were staying in trailers or hotel rooms, some as far away as Manchester, N.H. Some toughed it out in cold homes, with no heat or hot water.
By Oct. 21, Columbia had prepared an “Option to Consider” proposal for public officials, warning that the “current schedule is at risk.” The new plan would bring in two additional contracting companies, employing hundreds more plumbers. Also, in hopes of speeding the reconnection process, crews would repair appliances if it was safe to do so, instead of waiting for new appliances to arrive. The public officials had initially opposed that plan but agreed to it once the situation became dire.
Now, the company was expecting it would have service restored in the first weeks of December and set a new deadline of Dec. 16.
And what happened? Remarkable improvement. In a week, the number of connections doubled, to more than 20 percent.
On Nov. 7, for instance, 600 plumbers connected more than 200 meters. In one five-day stretch around Thanksgiving, crews of 900 plumbers a day were restoring service at a pace of 290 meters a day, on average.
The number of plumbers tripled. The quantity of work quadrupled.
Even though they had to intervene to jump-start the effort, Maylor, the North Andover town manager, and other officials who monitored the progress said the job was too complex to lay blame on any one party.
“The process was remarkably difficult, and so things changed on an everyday basis,” Maylor said.
They also attributed delays to the complexities presented by aging housing stock, specifically in South Lawrence, one of the state’s poorest communities. Chimneys had to be repaired. In one case, crews had to replace stairs before working to restore gas connections to homes.
Harry Brett, business manager for the Dorchester-based Plumbers & Gasfitters Union Local 12, said plumbers from across the country were eager to assist in the recovery work.
But Brett, who was not speaking for any of the subcontractors, said the task they all faced was too monumental at first for anyone to grasp. Even when plumbers arrived, there wasn’t an immediate action plan to put them in place. There weren’t even enough materials.
“It progressively got better, but there were so many logistical hurdles that everyone faced,” he said. “They desperately needed to come up with some form of project management, because never before have we needed heat and hot water connected to 8,000 houses in six weeks.”