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Businesses Still Struggle To Bounce Back From Columbia Gas Explosions After Nearly A Year03:40
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A bicyclist takes a turn at a road block as utility contractors dig up the road above natural gas lines along Brookfield Street in Lawrence, Mass. in September last year. (Charles Krupa/AP)
A bicyclist takes a turn at a road block as utility contractors dig up the road above natural gas lines along Brookfield Street in Lawrence, Mass. in September last year. (Charles Krupa/AP)

Ask most business owners affected by last September's gas explosions how much money Columbia Gas gave them for their claims and you're likely to get a laugh as an answer.

"I opened the claim three times, and they closed it," Maria Lopez, who owns a small boutique store in Lawrence, said, laughing. "They gave me $511 for my loss."

Nearly a year after the deadly gas explosions in northern Massachusetts, one-third of affected businesses are not operating like they were before the disaster.

At a press conference held in front of a North Andover boutique gift shop Tuesday, officials from the towns of Andover, North Andover and Lawrence acknowledged the work that needs to be done. Making sure infrastructure is sound so a disaster like this doesn't happen again; finding a way for businesses to weather at least one month if they have to close, should a disaster like this happen again; and increasing accountability of public utility companies are all on the list.

Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera empathized with those who haven't had a helpful experience with the utility's claims process.

"Let’s be honest about it," he said. "The claims process is not being handled by people whose best interests are the businesses; their best interest is Columbia Gas.”

But officials spent a good portion of time highlighting "resiliency" and "hope," and the fact that 70% of the 900 affected businesses are now operating as they did before the explosions.

"This [press conference] seems all very sad," said Rivera. "Can somebody put on music? This awful thing happened to us, but this effort that we're doing is to bring people back."

The effort: a newly-launched campaign called "Rock The Register," which aims to reinvigorate businesses in the Merrimack Valley. Despite many businesses operating normally, a lot of customers have found alternatives to their former go-to restaurants and shops while they were shuttered for months during the recovery.

Derek Mitchell is a member of the public/private "coalition" that has been distributing money to businesses to supplement any compensation from Columbia Gas.

Mitchell said one of the group's major initiatives, "Rock The Register," is focused on spreading the message to shop locally. Right now, the campaign offers a small sweepstakes, in which people who do support local businesses with the patronage can enter to win $500 each week. The money paid out to customers comes from the $10 million settlement funds Columbia Gas paid to the affected communities.

"You gotta have the messaging and then you gotta support the habit development, and the incentive will play a part there," Mitchell said.

A more substantial incentive will come in September — around the anniversary of the deadly gas explosions — when a stimulus orchestrated by business leaders, town employees, state officials and community advocates will go into effect. Customers will be given money to shop locally. Details of the stimulus are still being sussed out.

But for Maria Lopez — the owner of the Lawrence boutique store Curiousity who got a little more than $500 from Columbia Gas — she doesn't know if her business will survive to see that — even with the additional $10,000 she was given from the public/private partnership.

"That's not going to stop us from losing our business," Lopez said. "Traffic is horrible. It takes half an hour [to get to my store] when it used to take five minutes, because they are fixing the roads."

Lopez said she owes four months of rent, and she's behind on her utilities.

"I'm almost closing," she said.

Lopez isn't the only one who is concerned about post-disaster road work limiting business. Lindsie Guillermo, one of the managers at Carleen's Coffee Shoppe, said it's been a problem.

"Driving by, I would see over on this road [S Broadway], it'd be closed off or there'd be a detour," she said. "I'm sure it has affected business."

Patrons sit inside Carleen's Coffee Shoppe on Tuesday. (Quincy Walters/WBUR)
Patrons sit inside Carleen's Coffee Shoppe on Tuesday. (Quincy Walters/WBUR)

Guillermo has been working at Carleen's for 13 years. She said there aren't as many people patronizing the restaurant since the explosions. Columbia Gas brought them new appliances, but one replacement grill didn't fit, and they're still awaiting the correct one. Guillermo said it slows things down in the restaurant.

"If one piece is out of order, it affects all of us," Guillermo said. "'Cause they are a little bit slower back there [in the kitchen] ... and that means our people out here are waiting a little bit longer."

This segment aired on July 10, 2019.

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Quincy Walters Twitter Reporter
Quincy Walters is a general assignment reporter for WBUR.

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