Families in the Merrimack Valley of Massachusetts are facing a challenging Thanksgiving more than two months after natural gas explosions and fires leveled homes and left thousands without heat or hot water.
More than 2,000 homes are still without gas service in Lawrence, North Andover and Andover after gas lines were overpressurized during an otherwise routine pipeline replacement project, triggering dozens of explosions and fires.
While some residents have chosen to tough it out in chilly homes, more than 1,500 are spending the holiday in hotels, apartments and trailers paid for by Columbia Gas.
The utility company is responsible for the Sept. 13 fires that killed one, injured dozens and destroyed or damaged more than 100 structures.
North Andover resident Michelle Cerullo still doesn't have heat in her home which means she can't properly cook for Thanksgiving.
"I have two countertop toaster ovens," she said. "And then I have another one over here. This one has actually been a godsend."
Cerullo said she plans to head to her aunt's house for the holiday.
"You know, what you take for granted, your everyday life isn't as simple. It's a little challenging, but, you know, but there are people a lot worse off," Cerullo said.
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At the trailer park set up on Lawrence's South Common, Jose Grullon said his family's holiday would be more modest than usual.
The 45-year-old, his pregnant wife and two young children moved into a trailer last month after it became too cold in their apartment. Like most affected homes, theirs didn't suffer any fires or explosions, but the hot water heater, boiler and other gas appliances were compromised by the overpressurization and need to be replaced before gas service can be restored.
Grullon said their space is simply too small to host the festive party with food from his native Dominican Republic, dancing and music that he normally throws for family and friends. The family will instead eat the turkey dinner Columbia Gas is providing to trailer residents.
"It's not going to be a happy mood at all," he said. "It's going to be a sad situation."
But fellow trailer park resident Socorro Guzman had a more positive outlook.
Guzman, 72, said she'll be thanking God simply because her family survived. She'll be hosting about a dozen people. "It's a small place, but we have to celebrate."
Complicating matters is that temperatures are forecast to drop into the 20s.
Officials are concerned about water pipes and tanks freezing, so they're adding insulation under trailers and making sure every unit has sufficient propane for heating.
"We knew it was going to be cold, but most people don't spend the winter in an RV," said Scott Ferson, a spokesman for Columbia Gas. "So it has provided some unique challenges."
After missing a Nov. 19 deadline, Columbia Gas now says the region's gas service should be fully restored by December.
Columbia Gas, which also faces federal probes and class-action lawsuits, quickly replaced nearly miles of old gas lines, but restoring service to individual buildings has been more arduous.
Most appliances using natural gas are being replaced and the region's old housing stock presents additional challenges.
"We're finding a lot of code issues," said Ferson. "Each house needs to be addressed almost individually."
Even after heat and hot water was restored in some places, many residents say they still face an incomplete Thanksgiving.
Patty McCloskey got her gas service back to her Andover home earlier this month after workers spent three days removing and replacing her antiquated boiler and hot water heater.
She's grateful she no longer has to wear multiple sweaters to keep warm inside, but won't be hosting Thanksgiving as usual because her damaged stove won't be replaced for weeks.
McCloskey said her husband and her two grown daughters will instead take the gas company up on its free meal.
"This has been the most unusual experience of our life," the 71-year-old retiree said. "The most draining part wasn't so much the cold. It was the anxiety of not knowing what was going to happen next and how it was going to be resolved. It was exhausting. I'm exhausted."
North Andover Town Manager Andrew Maylor said in order to take advantage of the free meals provided by Columbia Gas, residents needed to RSVP because authorities didn't want people waiting outside in the frigid temperatures.
"The 11 o'clock pick up time will have more than 1,700 distributed and more than 1,000 distributed at the 1-o'clock time," Maylor.