I Lived Through the Merrimack Valley Gas Explosions and This is What I Learned

Every year in the fall, I head to Cape Cod for a last-ditch vacation before the year-end work crunch hits and the New England winter begins to take hold. 2018 was no different. At least as I headed to Provincetown.

Three days before I was supposed to return home, vacation was cut short. While I was at the beach without cell service, my family frantically called and texted. “Turn on the news,” all the messages said. And, just like that, life changed.

It was September 13 and a natural gas pipeline belonging to Columbia Gas had just exploded in the Merrimack Valley, affecting thousands of residents in Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover. The home I rented in South Lawrence was on that pipeline.

And so began a crisis that changed the landscape of three communities. It started with one dead, several injured, thousands displaced, and months of interrupted service, confusion, and unanswered questions. It continues today with most residents and businesses returned to normal, some residents moved away from their neighborhoods, and many still without a home that looks like it once did.

Now, in the big scheme of things, I made out ok – my home didn’t blow up, my family and loved ones weren’t hurt, and I had a local support system where I could find shelter and warmth. But, I lived for eight weeks without heat or hot water. I shuffled my daily schedule to find room for a new routine of basic necessities like showering, brushing my teeth, and washing dishes in warm water.

Chaos and Confusion

When I came home from the Cape, the immediate emergency had been contained but I couldn’t get to my house. My elderly cat – who was visited twice daily by family members who gave him food, water, and medicine – hadn’t had a visit in nearly 24 hours. Every road into my neighborhood was blocked off by barricades, and the streets were lit with construction flood lights and manned by the National Guard and police officers from as far as New York. Utility trucks from across the region were everywhere, and servicemen and women walked the streets and knocked door-to-door to check on homes.

I had my bicycle because of vacation so I parked my car on the side of the road near the barricade, hopped on my bike, scooped up Lurch (my cat), and headed to my sister’s house where I heard stories of how – in the moments immediately after the explosion – off-duty firemen, police officers, and other first responders took it upon themselves to turn off the gas at as many homes as they could get to. I settled in, and for the next three days, lived at my sister’s house while I awaited clearance to return home.

Workers replace gas lines after the merrimack gas explosion

Recovery and Questions

Once allowed back, the assessment began. What houses were structurally damaged? Which appliances were condemned? How would these damaged appliances be replaced? Could this all get done before the cold came?

With a colder-than-normal fall and winter on our heels, the quickest, easiest, and least-confusing thing most people did was a one-for-one replacement, meaning gas stove for gas stove or 30-year-old water heater for standard-efficiency water heater. Anyone who wanted to do anything else – like my landlord who was interested in upgrading to a high efficiency system – needed to do most of the legwork (contracting, pricing, etc.) on his or her own. Can anyone blame a person for making the quickest, easiest choice to get service back? Nobody was concerned with making the environmentally-friendly choice to install air source heat pumps (ASHPs) or other solutions that lessen a home’s carbon footprint. Why wasn’t anyone thinking about going all electric when replacing appliances?

Because my community was in a state of emergency, there was no time for a discussion about whether residents (many of them low-income) would be better served abandoning natural gas in favor of something more affordable, clean, and equitable. It was a missed opportunity. A missed chance at replacing old, environmentally-harmful, unhealthy fuel oil and natural gas appliances with ASHPs and other electrified infrastructure. A missed chance for communities to improve resilience and mitigate future disaster of this caliber.

Planning for the Future

This isn’t the first time a gas pipeline has exploded. Back in 2012, a Springfield Mass. pipeline owned by Columbia Gas was pierced, causing a build-up of gas in a building which led to an explosion. There are other instances too. Given the number of gas pipeline leaks in the Commonwealth, it might not be the last.

So how can communities plan for an unexpected yet unavoidable disaster like this?

Communities and residents are tired of recovering after storms and other catastrophic events. It’s stressful, time-consuming, and expensive to react time and time again. And in some cases, like Superstorm Sandy, many communities never recover. Year after year, flooding, wind damage, wild fires, and infrastructure failures affect thousands of people and hundreds of homes. These things won’t stop happening – and are, in fact, happening more frequently – so it’s time to take a step back and do some pro-active planning.

Workers replace gas lines after the merrimack gas explosion

Community Planning Resources

Instead of reacting to large-scale emergencies after they hit, how can communities prepare for them? How can communities learn from past disasters to deploy more resilient buildings that are energy efficient and utilize renewables?

I think any good measure of preparedness starts with a plan. Communities should have a strategy in place to deal with any number of emergencies. This plan should include logistics, communications, and shelter strategies.

Beyond that, however, a good emergency response plan should also include addressing energy and energy use. This particular part of the strategy is key in addressing how to handle longer-term recovery. It should address the best ways communities can plan – in a non-emergency setting – to strengthen its infrastructure, secure its buildings, and protect its residents. Public officials, in particular, are in a great position to lead by example with their public buildings.

NEEP has a wealth of resources to assist communities with this kind of energy planning. Our work touches on many aspects that would be included in an energy plan – technologies, building energy codes, green real estate resources, financing, and so on. In fact, we have a tool (Community Action Planning for Energy Efficiency, CAPEE for short) that can walk energy managers through the process of building such a plan.

In the coming months, my colleagues will continue this discussion in a series of blogs covering each of these topics, sharing our CAPEE tool, and talking about building decarbonization.

The Merrimack Valley did a great job in emergency recovery. I’m impressed with the quick response and effective voice of our local leaders. I’m grateful that service has been restored to my home. I’m blessed that things weren’t worse. I will always be sad that we lost a young life and that many residents are still without a safe home. I will always wish for the chance to take back this missed opportunity. I wish that my community could have capitalized on this disaster as a way to bring cleaner energy to residents most in need.

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