Ex­plo­sions add to town’s strug­gles

Be­fore gas leaks, crime and opi­oid ad­dic­tion had rav­aged Lawrence, Mass.

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY FRANCES STEAD SELL­ERS, KAREN WEINTRAUB AND GABE SOUZA frances.sell­ers@wash­post.com Weintraub is a free­lancer based in Mas­sachusetts and is a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to The Wash­ing­ton Post. Souza is a free­lance pho­tog­ra­pher based in Maine.

lawrence, mass. — In a town that has strug­gled with so­cial ills such as opi­oid ad­dic­tion, gangs and crime, a place that long has hoped to re­cover from the loss of in­dus­try, the man-made calamity that crept in un­der­ground and de­liv­ered fiery ter­ror this week added an­other layer of dev­as­tat­ing chal­lenges.

“It’s a tough city, a poverty city,” said a teary Zu­layka Ovalles, as she stood in line for do­na­tions at a se­nior cen­ter. “A lot of us are just try­ing to make ends meet. And now? I have four chil­dren. It’s very hard to tell them we are home­less.”

Eighty nat­u­ral gas ex­plo­sions and fires on Thurs­day night across the Mer­ri­mack Val­ley here, north of Bos­ton, left 8,600 homes in the area with­out gas or power, in­clud­ing large swaths of South Lawrence. Many have been forced into tem­po­rary home­less­ness, with some wan­der­ing dark­ened streets or stand­ing sentinel out­side their homes amid fears of loot­ing.

Of­fi­cials said Satur­day night that res­i­dents of the three af­fected towns can re­turn to their prop­er­ties at 7 a.m. Sun­day, even as the threat of ad­di­tional leaks ap­peared not to have abated as the week­end be­gan. Fire­fight­ers on Satur­day were in­ves­ti­gat­ing two nat­u­ral gas leaks just blocks from where sev­eral houses burst into flames a few days ago. Of­fi­cials said each house must be in­spected be­fore power can be re­stored, as any gas leaks or buildup of gas in­side homes could prove deadly.

One Lawrence teenager died when a chim­ney ex­ploded off a house, the bricks land­ing on the SUV in which he was sit­ting.

Some worry that the gas com­pany — Columbia Gas of Mas­sachusetts — had not taken long­time com­plaints of gas smells se­ri­ously, and politi­cians ac­cused the com­pany of be­ing slow to re­spond to the dis­as­ter, though the com­pany says it has de­voted all avail­able re­sources to the re­sponse.

Deb­o­rah and Luis Rivera, now sleep­ing on her sis­ter’s sofa, com­plained about the gas com­pany as they stood in line at the se­nior cen­ter to pick up sup­plies. “I’m very, very mad,” Deb­o­rah Rivera said, ex­plain­ing that she had called mul­ti­ple times to com­plain about the smell of gas around her house. “They say it is nor­mal.”

The gas leak ap­pears to have been caused by a sys­tem put un­der too much pres­sure, caus­ing gas to flow into houses, some of which caught fire. The sys­tem is run by Columbia Gas, the largest em­ployer in Lawrence. On Fri­day, Gov. Char­lie Baker (R) de­clared a state of emer­gency so he could shift con­trol of the re­sponse to an­other com­pany, Ever­source.

The Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board (NTSB) is in­ves­ti­gat­ing, and Chair­man Robert Sumwalt said Satur­day that of­fi­cials will look at phys­i­cal ev­i­dence, in­clud­ing 14 un­der­ground gas pres­sure reg­u­la­tors in the area, dur­ing the next week to 10 days.

“We have no ev­i­dence at this time that there is any­thing ne­far­i­ous, any­thing sus­pi­cious, any­thing in­ten­tional as­so­ci­ated with this dis­as­ter,” Sumwalt said.

He said an in­crease in nat­u­ral gas pres­sure was de­tected at a Columbia Gas mon­i­tor­ing fa­cil­ity in Colum­bus, Ohio, about the time of the ex­plo­sions, and the NTSB wants to un­der­stand what hap­pened af­ter the ex­tra pres­sure was de­tected. They also will be ex­am­in­ing com­plaints from cus­tomers dur­ing the past three weeks to see whether there was any re­cent in­crease.

“We will de­velop a com­plete time­line of the events sur­round­ing this dis­as­ter,” Sumwalt said, later adding that he was per­son­ally “ab­so­lutely dev­as­tated” by the events. A com­plete in­ves­ti­ga­tion could take up to two years, he said, but he ex­pects to es­tab­lish the im­me­di­ate cause much sooner.

In Andover, res­i­dents of most of the af­fected streets were al­lowed to re­turn Satur­day, and res­i­dents on nearly 40 streets were al­lowed to turn on their power by Satur­day af­ter­noon. Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera had warned res­i­dents that it might take longer to turn on power in ur­ban neigh­bor­hoods be­cause of the higher den­sity.

Of­fi­cials be­gan warn­ing Satur­day that it could be weeks be­fore gas is re­stored to homes. Many peo­ple in the re­gion start turn­ing their heat on by the end of Oc­to­ber, which could be a prob­lem for those with gas heat­ing sys­tems.

Like many other once-thriv­ing U.S. cities, Lawrence, pop­u­la­tion 80,000, lost the in­dus­tries that pow­ered this mill town and at­tracted peo­ple to work in the gi­ant ware­houses and fac­to­ries lin­ing the Mer­ri­mack River. Although New Bal­ance shoes oc­cu­pies a large fa­cil­ity, many re­main va­cant.

Al­ways a hub for im­mi­grants, in­clud­ing the Ir­ish and Ger­mans who ar­rived here in the mid-19th cen­tury to staff the woolen mills, Lawrence is now more than 75 per­cent His­panic — a pop­u­la­tion of largely Do­mini­can im­mi­grants who be­gan com­ing in the 1960s.

Many peo­ple liv­ing south of the Mer­ri­mack River speak lit­tle or no English.

Lesly Me­len­dez, deputy di­rec­tor of Ground­work Lawrence, a so­cial ser­vice or­ga­ni­za­tion, stood in front of the Lawrence Se­nior Cen­ter on Satur­day morn­ing, di­rect­ing cars and peo­ple. Many were car­ry­ing sealed brown boxes of do­nated food and plas­tic bags of bed­ding. Vol­un­teers showed oth­ers how to sign up to do­nate their time, as a line formed across the park­ing lot.

“Peo­ple need baby for­mula, di­a­pers and tow­els,” Me­len­dez said. “That sur­prised me. Tow­els.”

Me­len­dez, who grew up in Lawrence, said those who have re­sources have been in­cred­i­bly gen­er­ous to those with­out them. Peo­ple are crash­ing on couches and floors across the city — as many as 32 in one woman’s apart­ment. It’s not un­usual to find three gen­er­a­tions of the same fam­ily now mov­ing in to­gether — of­ten with in­laws north of the river who were not asked to evac­u­ate.

If the ex­plo­sions prove any­thing, Me­len­dez said, break­ing briefly to re­di­rect a pack­age of cloth­ing, it’s that “Lawrence is re­silient. We can come to­gether.”

The Lawrence YMCA opened at 5 a.m. Satur­day to of­fer free — but cold — show­ers to more than 200 peo­ple left tem­po­rar­ily home­less.

Peo­ple lined up out­side the se­nior cen­ter, clutch­ing their un­charged cell­phones, some star­ing in be­wil­der­ment at moun­tains of do­na­tions, un­able to de­cide what they needed most when their needs were so great.

“We ba­si­cally need ev­ery­thing,” said Liz Figueroa, be­gin­ning a list she did not know how to end. “Tooth­brush, tooth­paste … ”

A white flatbed truck set off across town, through the po­lice bar­ri­cades and over the Mer­ri­mack River, to de­liver drink­ing wa­ter to the cor­doned-off section of town where many res­i­dents are camp­ing out.

“Peo­ple look at us like we’re not wor­thy of any­thing, like we’re il­lit­er­ate,” said Des­tiny Mal­don­ado, re­fer­ring to the peo­ple of Lawrence and the rep­u­ta­tion for drugs and gangs. “This hap­pens, and ev­ery­body comes to­gether. It’s awe­some. What can I tell you?”

The cheer among res­i­dents Fri­day, with pickup bas­ket­ball games and shared cook­outs from thaw­ing freez­ers, was giv­ing way to wor­ries about loot­ing.

“I am the only po­lice in this house. I’ve got to stay,” one man called through an open win­dow.

Though progress in Lawrence has been slow, some fac­to­ries are be­ing re­de­vel­oped for apart­ments and artist stu­dios. Ground­work’s of­fice is in a for­mer mill build­ing. “We are get­ting there,” Me­len­dez said.

Lawrence and Low­ell, which lies 10 miles up­stream along the Mer­ri­mack River, have sim­i­lar pasts: founded by early in­dus­tri­al­ists in the first half of the 19th cen­tury to make clothes. The tex­tile busi­ness de­serted Low­ell sooner, but the city of 110,000 has suc­cess­fully re-cre­ated it­self as a hub for higher ed­u­ca­tion and ur­ban cul­ture, be­com­ing part of the “Mas­sachusetts Mir­a­cle.”

Two years ago, Maine Gov. Paul LePage blamed peo­ple “from Low­ell and Lawrence” for traf­fick­ing heroin and fen­tanyl across state lines, fu­el­ing the na­tion’s opi­oid epi­demic.

In March, an­nounc­ing plans to counter the opi­oid epi­demic, Pres­i­dent Trump, speak­ing in New Hamp­shire, called Lawrence a drug-rid­den sanc­tu­ary city.

“Ev­ery day, sanc­tu­ary cities re­lease il­le­gal im­mi­grants, drug deal­ers, traf­fick­ers, gang mem­bers into our cities,” Trump said. “They’re pro­tected by th­ese cities, and you say, ‘What are they do­ing?’ They’re safe havens for just some ter­ri­ble peo­ple, and they’re mak­ing it very dan­ger­ous for our law en­force­ment of­fi­cers.”

He cited a study in say­ing that Lawrence was “one of the pri­mary sources of fen­tanyl in six New Hamp­shire coun­ties.”

Rivera was quick to fire back af­ter Trump’s state­ment: “Shame on the pres­i­dent,” he said in a news con­fer­ence. “He’s traf­fick­ing in pain and di­vi­sive­ness, cre­at­ing boogey­men where we need so­lu­tions.”


Vol­un­teers un­load a box truck at the se­nior cen­ter in Lawrence, Mass., on Satur­day, de­liv­er­ing do­na­tions to help vic­tims of the nat­u­ral gas leak that sparked dozens of house fires Thurs­day.

Vi­vian Mar­quez, left, com­forts her neigh­bor Lisa Ro­driguez as they wait in line for food, wa­ter and other sup­plies Satur­day at the se­nior cen­ter. Ro­driguez was still with­out power or gas.

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