Hotplates, heaters to be given residents after gas disaster

Hotplates and space heaters will be distributed to thousands of Massachusetts residents who were left without natural gas following a series of gas explosions and fires, officials announced Friday.

The parent company of Columbia Gas, meanwhile, set a Nov. 19 deadline by which it expects to restore gas to all of the roughly 8,600 affected customers, with crews working to replace 48 miles (77 kilometers) of natural gas pipeline. The Sept. 13 disaster killed one person, injured about 25 others and damaged or destroyed dozens of homes and businesses in three communities.

While most residents of Lawrence, Andover and North Andover 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.

"We all share the same goal of getting people back to their normal daily life, whether it's a hot shower, a home-cooked meal or the ability to open up a business," said Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, who declared a state of emergency last week. "We're bringing every available resource to make this happen."

Joe Albanese, a retired U.S. Navy captain who founded a construction management company, Commodore Builders, will serve as chief recovery officer for the restoration project under a contract with Columbia Gas, Baker announced during Friday's news conference in Lawrence.

The self-contained hotplate units will be delivered door-to-door to Lawrence residents beginning on Saturday and will be distributed to affected Andover and North Andover residents at designated claim centers in those towns over the weekend.

About 24,000 space heaters will be made available to homes and businesses starting on Monday, but officials said local fire chiefs and electricians must first certify that the devices can be operated safely in each of the homes before they can be used. For homes where space heaters are not an option, "alternative home heating options" will be explored, the utility said in a news release.

"Safety will be paramount," said Albanese.

The governor said members of the Massachusetts National Guard have been activated to assist with the distribution of the hotplates and heaters.

As many as 2,000 natural gas meters could be turned back on within a couple of weeks, according to officials, and the utility hopes to have nearly 200 crews working on the ground by early October.

Joe Hamrock, the CEO of Columbia Gas' parent company, NiSource Inc., said the company on Wednesday would begin deploying teams to homes and businesses to determine if any damaged appliances need to be replaced before gas can be safely restored.

"We owe it to this community to make sure everyone's needs are addressed," he said.

Columbia Gas was sharply criticized by Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera for poor communication in the immediate aftermath of the rapid-fire explosions that rocked the city.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the blasts.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren planned to meet with Rivera on Friday to discuss recovery efforts before attending a cookout for affected residents being hosted by the Lawrence Housing Authority.

Warren and the state's other U.S. senator, Democrat Edward Markey, wrote to utility officials earlier this week that the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration had determined that the pressure in gas pipelines prior to the explosions and fires was 12 times higher than it should have been.