Columbia Gas call center behind on providing housing as temps drop

Lawrence residents waiting for alternative housing have huddled around space heaters at home as cold weather moved in this week because the Columbia Gas call center has “failed,”  Mayor Daniel Rivera said —  a charge the company denies.

Rivera said the call center has not kept up with the demand for alternative housing placement even though the company has had “plenty of time to deal with solutions.” 

“We just didn’t plan for Columbia Gas to fall asleep at the wheel when it came to the call center,” Rivera said, adding, “I’d say that I’m incredibly dissatisfied. People are freezing.”

Lawrence City Councilor Jeovanny Rodriguez said, “It’s about seeing the truth and the reality. People are cold today and people do not have options to go to a place. It is not fair for the people of South Lawrence to go through this situation and nobody gets answers and nobody gets solutions and temperatures are dropping.”

Temperatures in Lawrence plunged to 35 degrees last night and a freeze warning was issued by the National Weather Service from midnight to 9 a.m. Margarita Brito, a 40-year resident of Lawrence awaiting alternative housing placement, said she has four space heaters in her home to try to escape the cold.

“They haven’t done anything to help us. We’re waiting and waiting and nothing,” said Brito in Spanish, adding, “I’m really cold and I have diabetes and high blood pressure and arthritis.” 

Brito said she has called Columbia Gas several times and left messages that still have not been returned.

According to a daily update from the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, there were 1,703 hotel rooms available for placement as of yesterday along with 160 apartments and 233 travel trailers. 

“We have empty hotel rooms for no other reason other than the call center is broken,” Rivera said. He added that the Lawrence Fire Department will be stepping up staffing in anticipation of possible space heater fires. 

But Columbia Gas spokesman Scott Ferson said, “Overall, we have provided temporary housing to customers within three hours after they request it, and that is still the case. As temperatures begin to drop, Columbia is prepared for increased requests for temporary housing from customers, and we want to make sure that all customers have an ability to stay warm.” 

Gov. Charlie Baker said, “I’m expecting to be up there this weekend and obviously we talk every day to the local officials and the folks at Columbia about what’s going on.” 

Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey requested information from Columbia Gas yesterday citing difficulty in obtaining an accurate estimate of the number of uninhabitable homes in the Merrimack Valley. They have given the company until Nov. 1 to respond. 

“We are troubled with how Columbia Gas plans to assist affected residents if you are unable to provide swift and accurate information regarding the number of damaged residences,” the senators wrote.