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Recouping Losses In The Merrimack Valley

Nearly a month after explosions rocked the Merrimack Valley on Sept. 13, Columbia Gas is starting to pay claims to business owners for their losses.

A spokesperson for Columbia Gas said the company is processing more than 19,000 claims from businesses, housing tenants and homeowners, but would not say how many have been paid.

One business owner has been compensated for most of his losses. Mike Agricola reopened his Salvatore’s restaurant in Lawrence on Sept. 23, after nine days of being shut down. Power and gas were restored then to his 1,000 square foot restaurant and banquet facility that seats up to 300 people.

In those nine days, Agricola tapped into his personal account to pay rent and salaries for his seven salaried employees. He also has more than 75 hourly employees who did not have work during that time.

“You don’t know where to turn,” he told WGBH News. “You don’t know what to do. All you can think is, I’m going to go bankrupt.”

The state created a $1 million emergency loan fund to help business owners like Agricola weather the storm. But he said he was worried about being able to repay a loan and opted not to take one.

“I haven’t been able to take a paycheck for myself for a couple of weeks,” he said while sitting his restaurant. “That is really a month, because we get paid every two weeks.”

The other big losses: weddings and parties. Agricola had to give $20,000 in refunds to people who had booked his two function rooms.

Agricola also lost well over $10,000 in spoiled food in his freezers when his power was shut off. When he added it all up, Agricola said the gas explosions cost him $162,000. He said he lost $30,000 in food, beer and wine, and he calculated another $132,000 in business losses by averaging his revenue during that same part of September for the past two years. He filed a claim with Columbia Gas on Sept. 24.

While WGBH News was at Agricola's restaurant on Oct. 4, a Columbia Gas claims adjuster showed up with a check for $30,000. Agricola said he was cautiously optimistic.

“That covered my spoilage — being food, beer, and wine.” he said, but it was still $132,000 short of what Agricola says he lost.

A few days later, a Columbia Gas claims adjuster told Agricola the company would pay an additional $14,000 on his claim. Agricola didn’t think that was acceptable. The claims adjuster revisited his claim and told Agricola that Columbia would pay $130,000 total. That includes the $30,000 check that was paid previously.

What Agricola has been paid and promised amounts to about 80 percent of the losses he has claimed.

Joe Bevilacqua, president of the Merrimack Valley Chamber of Commerce, said many small businesses are still closed.

“No one has said to us they are out permanently. What they are saying is, it’s getting harder and harder to get back.” Bevilacqua said.

Like Agricola, many businesses are hoping Columbia Gas will come through to fully compensate them for their losses. Governor Baker issued a statement to WGBH News on Oct. 9, saying he fully expects Columbia Gas to fulfill its obligation to the residents and businesses affected by the explosions and fires.

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