Lawrence Gas Explosions Leaves Many With No Heat To Fare The Harsh Winter
SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:
Over the past few days, temperatures have plunged below freezing in the Merrimack Valley of Massachusetts, just north of Boston. That's where, more than two months ago, natural gas explosions damaged thousands of homes and caused tens of thousands of people to evacuate. One person was killed. And more than a dozen were injured. And many residents still have no heat. Investigators say a mistake by a utility company engineer caused that disaster. For an update on how those communities are doing, we're joined by the mayor of Lawrence, Mass., Dan Rivera. Dan, welcome to the show, although I'm sorry it's about this particular issue.
DAN RIVERA: Good morning. Thank you.
PFEIFFER: How many people left in your community, Lawrence, are still without heat, without gas?
RIVERA: I think that number is around 1,500 people. They broke the 75 percent mark of getting people in their homes with heat and hot water. And a certain number of them still don't have stoves.
PFEIFFER: And the scale of this was pretty astronomical. Give us a sense of how many people, how many homes were affected.
RIVERA: Yeah. You know, we've seen about 7,500 meters. We think that that added up to about 10,000 homes. That's just in Lawrence. That doesn't count nothing in Dover and Andover. So I think we're talking about, you know, close to 50,000 people impacted across the three communities.
PFEIFFER: The repair work has been enormous and time-consuming. Explain why it has taken so long to get heat and gas restored.
RIVERA: Well, I think that, you know, the one thing that gas companies know how to do is fix pipes in the street. So they did that pretty fast. They got gas up to most houses under the time frame they thought it was going to happen. But then the stuff that they've been really miserable at - and that's really dealing with people.
PFEIFFER: This is Columbia Gas - the utility.
RIVERA: Columbia Gas - correct. But MEMA, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, along with the governor's office - they've been so good in standing up alternate housing. The pressure was kind of off because people were actually in hotels and apartments and RVs.
PFEIFFER: As I recall, Columbia Gas originally said it was going to replace everyone's furnaces. Then they changed it to repairing them. They were going to give people electric heaters. But they changed their mind about that because of the fire risk. Is that part of what's slowing down the process?
RIVERA: Yeah. I mean, I think in a disaster like this one, people are trying stuff. And they're going to have some misses. But the real issue is they didn't have enough plumbers early on. They didn't have enough organization and management of those plumbers. And I think in the end, it's going to be a problem when they think about how fast they could've done this.
PFEIFFER: This had to have been hard on local businesses. How are they doing? Anyone not going to make it financially because of what happened?
RIVERA: I think so. I think we're going to lose businesses all over the place. Andover, North Andover restaurants had to lay off Lawrence workers. And so Lawrence workers went off and got new jobs. And now they can't get back on their feet in Andover, North Andover. We're going to get some extra money. Columbia Gas has also helped out with a couple loan plans. But at the end of the day, like, there's nothing like customers going to their place and then finding that place closed for six weeks. And then they find someplace else to go. So we're hoping we can bring them back.
PFEIFFER: Lawrence, generally speaking, is a fairly poor community - a lot of immigrants. These are many people who didn't have the financial cushion to weather a disaster like this. I imagine that's been very difficult.
RIVERA: The fact that we are a community with very little means, the fact that we're a community with infrastructure that's very old - it showed the vulnerability that communities like our - and it's unfortunate because our communities are some of the last ones to get resources to fix those things. And so yeah, it's been extra tough. I think we found out that everybody is kind of vulnerable. And it doesn't matter if you're rich or poor. You know, if your boiler's blowing up, your house is going to come down just as fast. You're going to have to rely on the safety net.
PFEIFFER: That's Dan Rivera, the mayor of Lawrence, Mass., which, along with the communities of Andover and North Andover, were affected by gas explosions in September. Mayor Rivera, thank you very much.
RIVERA: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF BRUCE COCKBURN SONG, "THE BURDEN OF THE ANGEL/BEAST")
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