On September 13, 2018, more than 80 gas explosions rocked the communities of Andover, Lawrence and North Andover. The fires, and the resulting gas shutdown that stretched well into the cold months of November and December, disrupted and displaced thousands of children and families. Many were forced to live in hotels until it was safe to return to their homes, and some families were even permanently displaced.
In the hours immediately following the disaster, United Way and TD Bank partnered to launch the Greater Lawrence Relief Fund to help individuals, families and their communities to rebuild. United Way leveraged its connections across Eastern Massachusetts to rally support for on-the-ground recovery efforts including: raising funds and providing immediate resources for people in need of assistance, mobilizing volunteers; and rebuilding community stability through the work of local partners. In the days and months that followed, United Way raised nearly $350,000, with generous donations from TD Bank, National Grid, Blue Cross Blue Shield, The Boston Bruins, Lindt & Sprüngli, and LogMeIn, and thousands of individuals.
United Way’s coordination and widespread publicity and appeals to support recovery efforts helped spur additional local fundraising efforts. For instance, 5th – 8th grade students at the three Lawrence-based Community Day Charter Public Schools (CDCPS), CDCPS- Prospect, Gateway, and Webster, organized and participated in a walkathon to raise money for the victims of the gas explosions. Students, teachers, and staff at the three schools collected pledges from family and friends, and more than 350 CDCPS students – a third of the entire student body – walked in Lawrence’s Storrow Park. Their efforts raised a total of $6,009, exceeding their goal by more than $1,000.
To date, United Way has distributed $310,000 to provide immediate disaster relief, direct assistance to help impacted individuals and families meet their basic needs, and long-term recovery assistance, including support for family child-care providers who couldn’t operate out of homes without gas service and new, affordable housing to replace units lost in the disaster and help transition a city with aging housing stock to one that relies on renewable sources of energy. United Way will distribute the remaining funds this year.
Here are some of the ways the fund has helped people in the greater Lawrence area rebuild:
- United Way provided funding immediately to support the American Red Cross response in the first three days of the disaster to help the Red Cross open and staff four evacuation centers at local schools, providing nearly 1,200 overnight stays. Overall, nearly 300 Red Cross disaster staff and volunteers worked to shelter, feed and support the nearly 9,000 affected people in the Merrimack Valley.
- In the first four days following the explosions and gas shutdown,Mass211, United Way’s 24-hour resource and referral line, received 3,755 calls for help. United Way provided Mass211 with additional funding to help them meet this high call demand and connect people in need to resources.
- Within the first week, Governor Baker established the Governor’s/Mayor’s fund to support individual relief with philanthropic funds from Columbia Gas intended to provide more immediate assistance while the gas company processed claims. United Way provided flexible funding to support to nonprofits involved in this process – Greater Lawrence Community Action Center and Groundwork Lawrence. This financial support was distributed to 3,000 impacted individuals so they could meet their basic needs for food, clothing replacement, etc. while they were displaced or awaited a claim. United Way’s funds were critical in supporting individuals who, for many reasons, may not have been on a lease or could not benefit from other assistance programs. In addition, United Way’s flexible emergency assistance helped those who lost work because their business lost gas service, such as restaurant employees in the affected area.
- United Way granted funds to Family Services of the Merrimack Valley to provide group support sessions to individuals affected by the gas disaster, including those working on response teams. A total of 48 people participated in four group sessions. The feedback from those groups were overwhelmingly positive, with attendees stating that they didn’t realize the extent to which they were struggling until they were provided with an opportunity to process their experience. Groups helped people process the trauma that occurred from the extensive loss of property, loss of employment, lost sense of safety, and many other losses people experienced.
- United Way recognized that family child care providers were uniquely impacted by the gas disaster by virtue of the fact that they use their homes to operate small businesses. Fearing the potential closure of at-home family child care, which would disrupt and impact the care of young children in these communities, United Way worked with EEC to identify providers who were adversely impacted by the disaster and awarded mini-grants to 37 family child care providers in Lawrence, North Andover, and Andover to help them remain open and secure alternate heating sources, enabling parents to continue working throughout this challenging period, with only a few days gap in service. Additionally, since many of these families did not experience a speedy restoration of their home heating, these children were able to spend their days in a warm and comfortable environment before returning to a potentially cold home in the evening. Many used funds to purchase clothing and winter apparel for the children and families in their care.
- United Way’s Greater Lawrence Relief Funds were used to purchase emergency food for victims of the gas explosions and fires in Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover. Many families in this region were already struggling with hunger before the gas explosions, and their struggles were intensified in the aftermath. Additionally, residents of the region who had not previously experienced food insecurity were forced to seek support while they were displaced or without gas service. The funding provided by United Way to the Merrimack Valley Food Bank purchased 24,546 pounds of nonperishable food, including pasta and sauce, soup, macaroni and cheese, and peanut butter and served nearly 42,000 people.
- It was no surprise that the recovery efforts were, partially, hindered by the aging and limited housing stock in the city. The families that were displaced, struggled without reliable heat or hot water for months, the homes that were damaged and the amount of housing code violations that were discovered brought to light the magnitude of the crisis. 52% of Lawrence units were built before WW II compared to 33% statewide. United Way made a grant of $75,000 from the Greater Lawrence Relief Fund to Lawrence Community Works to support the planning and pre-development work of the Island Parkside Project, which will provide much needed replacement of units lost in the disaster, add affordable units to the City’s housing stock, and will help the community to transition to renewable sources of energy.
- Finally, United Way provided funding to Northeast Legal Aid, an organization that provides pro bono legal support to individuals and families around eviction and other legal concerns, recognizing most very low income households cannot afford legal representation when they are denied benefits or evicted. After the disaster, Northeast Legal Aid immediately formed a response team of five lawyers and a paralegal. The team opened a dedicated intake process that was highly accessible and begun large-scale outreach efforts to make the community aware of their availability to support those impacted by the disaster and its fallout in the housing and employment markets. As a result of NLA’s efforts, residents were educated about their rights, assisted with reimbursement claims, helped to find alternative housing and otherwise assisted in their efforts to overcome the widespread devastation arising from the explosions and fires.
United Way appreciates each and every donor who supported our critical work in the communities hit by the gas shutdown crisis on year ago. Without your support, both in time and generosity, we would not be able to help these individuals, families and communities to recover and more importantly, to rebuild.