When Disaster Hits Home, United Way is Here to Help

At 4:30 pm on Thursday September 13th, two children waited to be picked up from Esther Brea’s family child care business at her home in the Colonial Heights neighborhood of South Lawrence. That’s when disaster struck: a sudden explosion and the terrifying sounds of children crying. Smoke was billowing out of the fireplace, and Esther immediately scooped up the two children and ran safely out of the house to call 9-1-1.

Esther then called her husband Francisco at work. He rushed home to find his wife and sons standing in the street, watching firefighters put out the flames consuming their home, one of the 70 rocked by gas explosions and fires in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover that night.

Francisco and Esther immediately tried to get a room at a hotel, but all of the area hotels were booked. Fortunately, a childhood friend who lives in Haverhill offered an extra room at his house for three nights. The next day, the couple was able to get a hotel room, where they stayed for two weeks until they found an apartment to rent.

Losing their home meant losing Esther’s child care business, and until they can rebuild, they’ve lost a source of income they rely on. But despite their loss, when asked what they needed, Francisco said simply, “We would rather give than receive. People have been so nice and cooperative and have offered to help. The main thing we needed was a place to live, and now we have that.”

“We’re lucky,” he added. “We may have lost our home, but we didn’t lose our friends or our family.”

United Way responds

While Francisco and Esther were looking for a place to stay the night, United Way President Mike Durkin was at his home watching the news. As the magnitude of the disaster came into view, he reached out to Dan Griggs, Market President at TD Bank and a United Way Board member, among other calls he made that night. The next day, United Way established the Greater Lawrence Relief Fund in partnership with TD Charitable Foundation, the charitable giving arm of TD Bank.

“Through our donations for recovery efforts, we’re ready to help families and individuals in our communities recover from these devastating explosions,” Griggs said.

At least 6,700 households have been impacted by the disaster. In addition to the 70 homes that were damaged or lost to explosions or fires, many families have still not been allowed back to their homes for safety reasons. On top of that, the thousands of families who have been allowed to return do not have gas service, which means most of them don’t have hot showers, dryers, ovens, or heat. And service is not expected to be restored until Thanksgiving.

The Community Gives Back

Since its launch, the Greater Lawrence Relief Fund has raised more than $200,000 through significant support from National Grid, Blue Cross Blue Shield, The Boston Bruins, Lindt, LogMeIn, and hundreds of online individual contributions. One hundred percent of the funds raised will be distributed to help families in the affected communities in coordination with other funds and relief efforts.

National Grid contributed $50,000 to the fund. “This donation is just one way we are lending our support on behalf of all those affected by the recent events in the Merrimack Valley,” said Marcy Reed, Massachusetts president, National Grid. “The well-being of our local communities is enormously important to us and we want to do our part to help assist our neighbors during this recovery process.”

Getting help to impacted families quickly is critical, along with getting help where it is needed most. United Way worked closely with Governor Baker’s office, Lawrence Mayor Rivera, the Essex County Community Foundation, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Association, and its nonprofit community-based partners in the region to determine the needs of impacted families and the best way to help both their immediate and long term needs.

Relief Now And in the Future

A significant portion of funding from United Way’s Greater Lawrence Relief Fund will go to support the immediate needs of the most vulnerable families who were impacted by the disaster. The funds will be distributed through local community organizations in coordination with the ECCF Fund and other funds. Funding will also support increased staffing of ongoing operations at United Way’s 211 call center, which has already responded to almost 5,000 calls for assistance related to the Merrimack Valley gas leaks. Finally, funds will support additional needs that emerge as individuals and families recover from the disaster.

Additionally, United Way is providing immediate assistance to Merrimack Valley families affected by the gas explosions in the region through its 211 service. In the first two weeks following the gas explosions and shut down, United Way’s 211 also helpline responded more than 650 online requests for assistance related to the Merrimack Valley gas leaks.

“I give a lot of credit to the fire department, the local and state police departments, the Mayor, the Governor — this was very unexpected, not like a hurricane or snowstorm where you have a few days to prepare,” said Francisco Brea. “People have been taking care of each other.”

helping in crisis: it’s what we do

Responding to communities in times of crisis is a role United Way has played for decades — September 11, Hurricane Katrina, and more recently Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria, and Florence, and the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. When faced with disasters in their communities, other United Way organizations step up to help people in need.

The U.S. Virgin Islands, hit last year with two Category 5 Hurricanes, suffered nearly $11 billion in damages. In this post reflecting on those communities’ efforts to rebuild and recover one year later, United Way of the U.S. Virgin Islands President Vinod Dadlani recounts how the donations from countless countries and companies helped United Way to provide clothing, tools and food, helped to rebuild and clean public schools and housing, and helped to sponsor a Spelling Bee.

A Spelling Bee?

“It might seem like an unlikely move on our part, but it was a source of pride to the entire territory and provided a small bit of normalcy and happiness to our students and their families,” he said. “A year ago, who would have imagined a spelling bee would be part of our response to these unprecedented disasters?”

This is the essence of what United Way does. We bring people together to respond to the most pressing needs, both short and long term. In Orlando, the Heart of Florida United Way (HFUW) saw its community change as thousands of evacuees from Puerto Rico arrived, looking to start a new life. United Way responded with immediate assistance, but has also been monitoring and addressing the long-term needs of those impacted by the disaster.

United we are strong

“We saw our community band together and welcome families with open arms,” said Jeffery Hayward, Lynn native and current President and CEO of HFUW. With assistance for initial rent and utility deposits, United Way established the Hurricane Maria Housing Assistance Program, which has helped 80 working families transition into permanent housing.

“Many of these families fled to our community with only the clothes on their backs. While we were able to help provide a roof over their heads, they only had an inflatable mattress to sleep on, and little else.” Recently, Heart of Florida United Way expanded the Hurricane Maria Housing Assistance Program to help families purchase basic furniture and household items.

“Throughout the year, we have heard stories of heart-breaking adversity, unimaginable tragedy, and devastating circumstances,” Hayward said. “But because of the outpouring of support from the community, and our collaboration with local officials and nonprofit partners, we are rewriting those stories into remarkable journeys of resilience, determination, courage and hope for tomorrow.”

You can help too

Recovery goes on for the people of Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover, and they can still use your help to make their journey easier. If you’d like to support their community, consider donating to the Greater Lawrence Relief Fund. 100% of your donation goes towards relief efforts. Click here to donate: unitedwaymassbay.org/lawrencerelief.