Columbia Gas representatives are making themselves available to the public in a series of community meetings and fielding questions for customers still dealing with the aftermath of the explosions.
In September, one person died and thousands of residents in Andover, North Andover and Lawrence were urged to evacuate their homes after a series of gas explosions rocked the Merrimack Valley.
Now, 96 percent of residential meters have been restored, but 270 customers remain without gas service, according to a Dec. 6 statement from Columbia Gas. Most of the remaining four percent is made up of people who chose to self-mitigate, or use their own contractors.
The meetings, which have been held every three weeks and are expected to continue every three weeks in the coming months, serve as “office hours” for the remaining customers to check in with representatives from all facets of the company, a representative for Columbia Gas said.
At one sparsely-attended meeting at the Lawrence High School on Dec. 8, Columbia Gas President Stephen Bryant said the company feels like it is close to the end in the recovery process, if not entirely there.
“We’re feeling optimistic," Bryant said. "We’re getting just about to the end of what I would say is this first phase of this, which is to get everybody back in their home or their business with heat and hot water and their appliances. There are a number of customers who have made the decision to finish the work themselves, but I think we’re coming close to the point where we’ve helped everybody who wants us to get their job finished for them.”
Nearly 200 families are still in temporary housing as of Dec. 6, according to Columbia Gas, which represents a substantial drop from the 2,278 families (approximately 8,000 individuals) who have used temporary housing since the explosions.
The meetings are a last resort for Lawrence resident Alta Diaz, 51, after the contractor assigned to install her new stove was a no-show. The biggest issue, according to Diaz, has been a lack of communication.
“One hand doesn’t know what the other hand is doing,” said Diaz, who attended the Dec. 8 meeting in Lawrence. “Every time you call, one person will give you one thing, someone else will say something else, and today this is my fourth attempt trying to speak to someone.”
Andover resident Jane Gifun, 71, said she was without gas for seven weeks and felt frustrated and confused.
“We had three teams of inspectors come into our house and not anyone knew that the one before it had been there,” said Gifun, who attended a Dec. 8 meeting at Andover's Doherty Middle School. “That lack of communication — and I know everybody was scrambling around and everything, but the lack of communication was the most frustrating part.”
According to Chief Recovery Officer Joe Albanese, the original plan was to use one contracting company, and as the situation escalated, those plans quickly became amended as more contractors were added on.
“You’re talking about more than $300 million worth of work in place in 10 or 11 weeks,” Albanese said.
Columbia Gas worked with four general contractors and 1,100 plumbers at the peak of the crisis, Albanese said. Pre-existing issues presented another major issue when it came to people’s homes.
“Every single basement was different, nothing was consistent,” Albanese said. “We knew when we were planning this in late September that there would be some lead paint, and some asbestos, and some hazmat, and that there would be some anomalies and some code violations, especially in the downtown urban areas where the housing stock was old, we knew there would be some of that … We just didn’t anticipate how much it there would be.”
Columbia Gas issued a statement in September that they hoped to have every meter fully recovered by Nov. 19. According to Albanese, the project was virtually impossible to plan.
“It was like building the firetruck on the way to the fire,” he said.
The community meetings are a part of phase one of the company’s restoration plan. Phase two, which is scheduled to begin in April, will be to complete any remaining work, paving and repairing streets, lawns and sidewalks that were affected, and removing trailers from fields and local parks.