Mayor Dan Rivera Gets Personal About the Gas Explosions
On Sept. 13, a series of gas explosions and fires forced the evacuation of terrified residents from about 8,600 homes serviced by Columbia Gas of Massachusetts in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover. In the resulting destruction, 18-year-old Leonel Rondon of Lawrence was killed, an estimated two dozen were injured and up to 130 houses and buildings were damaged or destroyed.
One of the evacuees was Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera, who has emerged from the chaos as a central leader in the recovery efforts. The day after the catastrophe, Rivera stood alongside Gov. Charlie Baker at a press conference and excoriated Columbia Gas for being “the least informed and the last to act.” Rivera later sought refuge at a shelter alongside fellow residents and has remained a forceful and compassionate presence, whether advocating for his constituents or showing his support at neighborhood barbecues.
MVM: Have you had a chance to catch your breath?
Rivera: Every day is a little more normal, but I’m not going to fully catch my breath until everyone is home safely with heat and hot water.
MVM: How did you deal with such an unprecedented situation?
Rivera: I simply thought about how I would want to be treated as a person in the affected area, and how I would want my family treated. I have a great team, and it was instinctual for all of us — because we all care so much.
MVM: What about the city’s response makes you most proud?
Rivera: The way we helped each other get through this. We responded to the mayhem in a way that showed the best of every person in the worst of situations. It was a dangerous situation, so you’d think people would be in it for themselves, but we were all in it together, which was amazing to see. I always knew we had it in us. It’s unfortunate it took a tragedy to show it.
MVM: What caused the most frustration?
Rivera: First and foremost, the direction and leadership of Columbia Gas at the highest level was lacking. For me, it was frustrating not having the resources or control to make sure that every resident was treated with dignity and humanity and made whole. I wish we could do it faster, do it better, but as long as we get back in our houses safely, we’ll be fine. This, too, shall pass.
MVM: Do you think the nature of the response will improve the city’s image?
Rivera: Absolutely. The silver lining is we showed what we are capable of, and I think people are standing a little taller and a little bit more proud of Lawrence. If judged by our actions, people will see a community where things are happening, where people are invested in its future in spite of whatever happens month to month or year to year.
MVM: What are residents’ concerns now?
Rivera: When is my heat coming back on? When can I have hot water? And to some extent, are we going to be safe? Columbia Gas has a long way to go toward reassuring customers, and the city is going to work with them to try to rebuild that trust.
MVM: How would you characterize your relationship with Gov. Charlie Baker, and did it impact the emergency response?
Rivera: I have a good relationship with Gov. Baker. I feel he’s a good leader, and he really does care about every citizen in the Commonwealth. People can politicize it if they want, but when there are flames, and homes are exploding, it matters how you react, and the governor did a great job in literally bringing all of the resources within his purview to bear. I felt very well supported by him and [Andover Town Manager] Andrew Flanagan and [North Andover Town Manager] Andrew Maylor, who all helped me make really tough decisions.
MVM: When do you expect a state of normalcy to return?
Rivera: Not for a while. We’re going to have people back in their homes with heat and hot water on Nov. 19, but for the family who lost their son, for the families who lost their homes, it will never be the same. But as a community as a whole, we’ll do what we always do: go back to work, go back to school, go back to church, and continue on with life.
MVM: Is there a message you’d like to share?
Rivera: If you’re in the affected area, be patient with the bureaucracy that is Columbia Gas. No one has ever had to do this before, but they’re doing the best they can and we’re doing the best we can to get it right. If you’re not in the affected area, every dollar you can give to the Greater Lawrence Disaster Relief Fund is helpful. When we think about this tragedy and the loss of life, and the damage to property and person, it’s so sad. But I hope the story we write in the end is despite the craziness, we came out better as a community with everyone continuing to be proud to be a Lawrencian.
The effects of the Merrimack Valley gas explosions will likely be felt in our region for a long time to come. For those in need of assistance or looking to contribute to relief efforts, mvm would like to direct you to the following critical resources:
We Are Lawrence was launched in 2012 and its website, WeAreLawrence.org, provides a centralized location for information pertaining to the explosions and recovery efforts in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover. Their website is updated hourly and features progress updates, an event calendar and a resource guide.
The Greater Lawrence Disaster Relief Fund at the Essex County Community Foundation is another comprehensive resource. Learn more at ECCF.org.