LAWRENCE, Mass. — While residents were back in their homes Monday and electricity had been restored, the future for thousands of Merrimack Valley residents remains uncertain.
Though relief is on the way for the victims of the tragedy that struck the area on Sept. 13 residents may be without gas for months as Columbia Gas replaces 48 miles of pipeline in Lawrence.
"It's going to take a while and it's going to create some real hardships for them," said Governor Charlie Baker.
On Monday, local officials announced a relief fund has been created to help those disrupted by last week's gas explosions and fires, which Gov. Baker hopes to have up and running by the end of this week.
The foundation will be in addition to payments from Columbia Gas and payouts from insurance companies.
The same day the relief fund was announced, thousands of residents have been filing damage claims with Columbia Gas.
The property claim center served about 500 families before noon and, at the end of the day, hundreds of others were told not to come back until Wednesday.
The claims center relocated Tuesday to 1 Market St. in Lawrence. It is scheduled to be open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Columbia Gas announced a second location will be open from 1 to 8 p.m in Andover at Old Town Hall, 20 Main St. Parking is available in the back. Customers who cannot make it in person can call 1-800-590-5571 to file a claim.
Columbia Gas said it will reimburse displaced residents, with covered items including hotel costs, meals out, child care, lost food and wages.
It could take weeks for the checks to be cut, and Columbia Gas is giving out cash cards with up to $300 depending on the size of the family.
"The people who are getting this money need it," Paul Winnick of Swerling Milton Winnick Public Insurance Adjusters, Inc. said.
Winnick and Diane Swerling both said anyone with a homeowner's, renter's or business policy should have what's known as civil authority coverage, specifically for situations where people are forced out by police due to a catastrophic emergency.
"In a homeowner's policy, there's two weeks of coverage for additional living expense," Swerling said. "That would be if you had to stay in a hotel or eat meals out. There's no deductible or waiting period."
Civil authority coverage also helps business owners recoup lost revenue, as long as the business has been impacted for at least three days.
"These types of claims take time," Winnick said. "The dollars aren't immediate, but by all means they should look into it."
Winnick and Swerling have agreed to offer free advice to anyone impacted by the gas explosions and fires in the Merrimack Valley, and can be reached at 781-416-1000.
Residents from all three affected communities crowded into the school gym to seek assistance after the multi-day evacuations.
While some walked away with food or money vouchers after filing their claims, city and state leaders say it will take a long time for Columbia Gas to assess and fulfill all of the claims.
That's where the relief fund comes in. According to Gov. Baker, the hope is that the foundation will bridge the gap for people who lost food or even their jobs when the power and gas went out.
"This isn’t a gas problem, this isn’t an electricity problem or an infrastructure problem - this is a human problem," said Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera.
Rosanne Wojtas estimates she spent nearly $1,000 in the four days her Andover home was evacuated following the gas explosions and fires.
"We were buying clothes, toiletries and everything, going from hotel to hotel, so the idea is I’d like to file a claim so I can get some of the money back," said Wojtas. "It’s stressful on my end, everyone is saying, 'don’t you have patience?' and I’m like, 'no, no that ran out a few days ago.'"
Like others who waited hours in line to file their claims, Wojtas was told to come back at another time, though she already missed a day of work.
Others in line left with food vouchers, but said they'll need more, with no timetable on when the gas will be turned back on.
"They should have taken care of it right away because now we are without any gas for God knows how long," said William Therrien, of Lawrence.
Gov. Baker estimates the fund could be in the millions of dollars, noting the danger may be over, but the crisis continues for thousands.
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