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Officials Work Toward Nov. 19 Gas Restoration Deadline for Merrimack Valley

The distribution of thousands of space heaters to residents impacted by the explosions and fires in Merrimack Valley began on Monday, while authorities said they are continuing to work toward their November deadline for full gas restoration.

The Massachusetts National Guard began going door-to-door to those who remain without natural gas service in Andover, North Andover and Lawrence.

With temperatures dropping, residents need to find ways to keep warm. But fire officials are urging the public to use space heaters safely.

"Between 2007 and 2016, we had 139 fires in the commonwealth that were associated directly to the use of space heaters," said Andover Fire Chief Michael Mansfield. "They should be placed a minimum of three feet away from any drapery, furniture or combustible material. We ask that they not use an extension cord to power the space heaters."

"I'm a little scared with her because I'm not sure if that's very secured," said Lawrence resident Tere Santos. "She runs a lot around the house, so I'm not sure if that's secure for a little kid."

Gov. Charlie Baker and Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera provided an update on the ongoing situation Wednesday afternoon. Rivera said officials spoke with a small segment of the Lawrence business community and the basic tone from business owners was anxiety.

"There's anxiety about how can they get their businesses up 100 percent and fast. Anxiety about their workers, lost wages, and getting them to a place where they are not psychologically impacted," Rivera said.

The mayor said authorities are still working toward the Nov. 19 deadline set by Columbia Gas to restore gas service to all of the roughly 8,600 affected customers.

"We're promising that date but we might be able to get to it sooner. We're giving them that information, but not to really bet on it because it's a big system," Rivera said.

On Friday, Columbia Gas officials said that it will be two months before all residents in the three communities affected by the Sept. 13 explosions and fires would have their service restored.

Baker said authorities are still working with residents and small businesses on insurance issues and claims. He shared the mayor's point about the anxiety a lot of people are experiencing.

"This is as about as big an inconvenience you could possibly imagine and for small businesses in many cases that run week to week, month to month, they work because they are open — they hustle and they have customers who are loyal to them. But over the course of the next several weeks, there's going to be anxiety over whether those customers are going to be there and when they're going to open again or not," Baker said.

Officials said they are also working to see if they can create a short-term loan program to help small businesses in the recovery effort.

"It would work to provide sort of, support for a lot of the businesses that have been impacted by this for some period of time with the recognition that some point down the road they would be reimbursed for their loss business revenues and all the rest by Columbia, and at that point they could pay the loan off," said Baker.

The disaster killed one person, injured 25 others and damaged or destroyed dozens of homes and businesses.

While most residents who were forced to flee their homes have been allowed to return, thousands remain without natural gas service needed for cooking, hot water and to heat their homes as fall arrives and temperatures begin to drop.

Twenty crews are currently deployed to work on the pipeline, a number that increased to 60 on Monday. By Oct. 8, 195 crews will be working to restore the pipeline.

Retired U.S. Navy Capt. Joe Albanese will serve as chief recovery officer for the restoration project.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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