In the Face of Disaster, Communities Stand United

The fall afternoon was like any other this year. It was warm, sunny, maybe a few clouds. The people of Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover went about their lives, not knowing that beneath the streets, a new story was being written. The seals in the underground gas lines were starting to crack, which would lead to a cascading failure that would send flames upward, plunging the whole area into chaos as houses burned and continued burning into the night.

News spread as quickly as the flames, and soon people across the country were hearing about the escalating disaster. Before the flames settled, the community learned that the explosions had taken the life of a young Lawrence resident, leaving his family to mourn the loss of more than just a place to live.

When morning came and all that remained were embers and ash, the people of Lawrence, Andover, North Andover, and the wider community got their first real look at the damage. The scale demanded an immediate, substantive response. In the next three days, many organizations began to take action to support recovery efforts.

First Response

Hours after news broke about the explosions, United Way CEO Mike Durkin reached out to Dan Griggs, Market President at TD Bank and a United Way Board member, and the two organizations established the Greater Lawrence Relief Fund in the hope of providing an easy way for people to give to disaster recovery efforts.

The response was overwhelmingly positive. Support came in from a number of organizations, including significant donations from National Grid, Blue Cross Blue Shield, The Boston Bruins, Lindt & Sprüngli, and LogMeIn. There were hundreds of individual contributions as well.

In the first week following the explosions, Governor Charlie Baker secured a ten million dollar philanthropic gift from Columbia Gas. This money would provide a financial buffer for bills and other necessities until people could recover their losses. A network of nonprofits came together and sought to learn how many people lived in the affected areas and how the funding could best be distributed.

These discussions were extensive and involved executive directors from a number of organizations that had gathered to help Greater Lawrence rebuild. Though lengthy, the conversations were constructive, and led Beth Francis, President and CEO of the Essex County Community Foundation to say: “I heard a lot of great ideas today. What I didn’t hear was anyone saying ‘no.’”

That sentiment would become the spirit of the recovery effort. Staff from dozens of nonprofits came together and worked tirelessly to identify and provide support to those families most impacted by the disaster. In many cases, a full 75 percent of staff dropped everything to provide assistance to their community.

The Power of Collaboration

Mayor Dan Rivera put out a call for nonprofits, community groups, and churches to focus their attention on five primary pillar of disaster response: hot meals, hot showers, mental health, housing, and transportation. His concern was to provide people with the help they needed. Costs weren’t high on his list at the beginning, and he put such considerations aside so people could be there for their community.

The Red Cross set up an emergency shelter and hotels opened their doors to help house the 30,000 people forced to evacuate their homes as officials investigated for further issues. For people who needed answers right away, United Way’s 211 hotline responded to thousands of calls, providing people with connections to services and resources as they figured out what their next steps would be.

To fight the coming cold, nonprofits organized to distribute warmth kits, care packages filled with easy-to-transport items designed to ward off the chill. The National Guard came in to distribute 7,000 hot plates, and hundreds of temporary staff came in to act as translators, to restore services, check on homes, and provide space heaters for those citizens cleared to have them. Gillette put together 200 personal care bags with shaving and other hygiene necessities, and United Way of Central Mass contributed 10,000 shelf-stable meals. Within the first three weeks, the local YMCA provided more than 10,000 hot showers, and the Lawrence Senior Center made 2,200 wellness calls to check in on affected citizens.

This kind of collaboration is a hallmark of United Way’s work. This time, though, organizations came up to the plate on their own, partnering organically to solve problems as they saw them. In its almost 150 years of service, United Way has always made these kinds of connections possible. A strong, connected community is more resilient and better prepared to provide disaster recovery assistance after events of all kinds.

Looking to the Future

In the time since the first gas line rupture, a lot has been accomplished. People worked together, and volunteers, nonprofit employees, donors, community organizations, and others all put in — and continue to put in — a tremendous effort to give back. Yet many challenges remain.

The gas is still off, and it will stay off until mid-November at the earliest. People are still without housing, and with a meager 3% vacancy rate in the South Lawrence area, many are liable to stay that way for awhile. The most vulnerable will be feeling the effects of this disaster for months to come.

Support is ongoing, and for many local organizations, a full 25 percent of their staff are still directly involved in providing assistance wherever it’s needed. United Way plans to remain a responsive presence, and working together, the organizations on the ground will ensure the people of Lawrence continue to receive every bit of help they need wherever, whenever, and however they need it.