In the middle of the night, Tina Levine woke up, got out of her warm bed, and hurried down the stairs. She approached her stove, put her hand on the dial, applied some pressure, and turned.
Blue flame appeared around the burner. Levine knew that was supposed to happen — she’d been re-lit the night before — but in the middle of night, she had to go check to make sure her appliance, for so long an everyday convenience used without a second thought, would really work.
Levine, who lives in Andover, is one of the lucky residents who has finally had her gas service restored; but lucky, in this case, is a loaded word. Thousands of residents across Lawrence, Andover and North Andover like Levine are still waiting for basic home necessities, like heat and hot water, more than eight weeks after a series of gas explosions rocked the Merrimack Valley in an unprecedented disaster. Those who have been restored report feeling on-edge, brokenhearted for their neighbors, and afraid that the events of Sept. 13 will be repeated.
Chief among the complaints, however, is Columbia Gas’ lack of coherent, accurate communication. Even as the re-light process trudges forward, residents have reported crews have shown up at their homes unannounced or have not shown up when they were supposed to; forgotten to replace critical appliances they had previously removed; incorrectly installed meters introducing new gas leaks; provided conflicting information; and ultimately, left residents in the dark to fend for themselves.
“There’s kind of a pall over the whole experience,” said North Andover resident Andrea O’Donnell. “It is astounding to me how disorganized this is. ... It’s not rocket science.”
While Levine had crews in and out of her house for days, saw her stove installed, uninstalled and reinstalled. She has neighbors who were re-lit along with her on Thursday but woke up Friday to malfunctioning furnaces, O’Donnell and her husband, Kevin, said they’ve heard nothing but silence from Columbia Gas since September.
The O’Donnells never lost heat — they use oil — but inspectors came to their home in late September and checked their electrical wiring as they handed out space heaters. Since then, the couple said, they haven’t heard a single thing about their service. The restoration map says they will be re-lit in December.
But then again, Jacqueline Wong — one of Levine’s neighbors on Brechin Terrace in Andover — said her restoration date was Dec. 9, even as she stood in her newly re-lit duplex.
“It makes me so angry. It’s like, are you sure we’re lit?” Wong said. Later she laughed and wondered aloud if the hot shower she’d enjoyed that morning hadn’t actually been a dream.
While some residents like Wong and Levine saw their restoration date unexpectedly and inexplicably moved forward by weeks, Alex Bromberg of Andover was at the end of his rope Thursday when he learned that he could have been back in his home — instead of crammed in a single hotel room with his wife and three children — weeks earlier.
Bromberg said representatives from Columbia Gas told him and his landlord that self-mitigating — hiring private plumbers, buying their own appliances, then applying for reimbursement — would not help their re-light status move any faster; but Thursday “we heard the exact opposite.”
“It’s probably the most horrid part of this whole thing so far. I almost wish that hadn’t been the case,” Bromberg said, angry at what he described as the company’s incompetence. “It’s been hell for us ... We could have had gas already, and this whole situation has been delayed.”
In a statement Friday, Columbia Gas admitted to making mistakes and pledged to learn from them.
“I can’t speak to each individual situation, but I will say this: We know we haven’t been perfect, and we are always learning from the feedback we get from our customers, and trying to constantly improve, on everything from communications to our customers, the claims process, and in-home installations,” said spokesman Dean Lieberman.
“This is an incredibly complex logistical undertaking, with immense and evolving challenges that we face and work through every day. We are doing everything we possibly can to get our customers back home with heat and hot water as safely and efficiently as possible.”
Some 50 days after the initial explosions, residents seemed apathetic toward promises from their gas company. The O’Donnells said they have no confidence in Columbia’s self-imposed Dec. 16 deadline for restoring gas service to all customers, which falls nearly a full month after the original Nov. 19 deadline.
“The math,” Kevin O’Donnell said, “just doesn’t add up.”
Residents were, however, quick to defend the crews on the ground. Levine said she “almost cried” when one of the men working in her house Thursday told her he was determined not to leave until she had her gas turned back on.
“Now that I am re-lit, my heart hurts for those who are still dealing with the anguish I dealt with for 56 days,” Levine said. “The ups and downs. The different stories everyone got. Yes, you can eat out, no you can’t eat out, yes we will install your appliances, no we won’t, yes you will be turned on by Nov. 19, no you won’t.”
Andrea O’Donnell likened her conflicting frustration and gratitude for having heat and hot water to “survivor’s guilt.”
Some 4,805 residential meters remained disconnected as of Friday morning; about 63 percent of the total affected residential homes, according to Columbia Gas. Among them was Cathleen Gable, who said in an email that she’s spoken to people in the Merrimack Valley who don’t even realize the recovery effort is still going on. She said she worries about her 84-year-old mother, who lives with her in North Andover, “is easily brought to tears and admitted to being depressed last week.”
“As you can see, the gas explosions have far reaching effects, many of which fly under the radar because all of us are desperately trying to keep it together.”