Totally OT: #MVGasFire

Sep 17, 2018 | Hot Topics

First, to all of you who reached out to check on me and my family: thank you. We are fine, in our home and sustained no damage. But it’s been an interesting ride. Many people remain in shelters, one person has died and dozens were hurt. But not us. We were incredibly fortunate. Let’s backtrack:

On Thursday at around 5PM our town’s alert system sent out a very strange message, something like “There are gas explosions all over town. Evacuate your home now.”  These alerts had always been requests to be on the lookout for seniors who had wandered away from their carers or notices that trash pickup would be delayed. But “Evacuate now”?? So I called the police department’s routine number and they confirmed: not a hoax, not a drill. Get out. So we did.

Then came a second message: “Turn off your gas.” My neighbors and I stood in the street outside our homes and tried to figure out how to do that [Stacy rocks — her dad knew.] But how do we evacuate? In a hurricane, you go away from the storm’s path. Where do you go in this kind of case, where anything could blow up? And how do you do that in a car, basically a moving gas tank? How long would we be gone? What did we take? Where could we go with pets?

While trying to figure this out, we heard sirens in all directions, building in number as more and more of the 50-plus fires the Merrimack Valley saw that evening kicked off. Clearly a real danger, all around us. One of our neighbors loaded up and headed out, only to come back: the streets were gridlocked as every resident tried to evacuate.

But eventually we did go because it just got too panicky to do nothing. We drove for a while, trying to figure out where we could go with pets –none of the shelters just opening at that time took pets and many of our friends who offered a bedroom had pets of their own– and decided to return home because we saw nothing dangerous in our part of town. We thought that since the power company hadn’t turned off our electricity, there wasn’t as much spark danger as in other parts of the affected area. [I don’t recommend that reasoning in case you’re not safe, but it made sense to us at the time.]

So here we sit. It’s now 9AM on Monday and we have power but no gas, and are safe at home while hundreds are still displaced in shelters. School will happen in my town today, but not in all towns affected by this. Compared to many, we are so so so lucky.

What have we learned from this? Many things, including:

  • If your product fails (looking straight at you, Columbia Gas), own it and communicate about how you’re dealing with it. It’s now day 4 and we have no info on how and when we’re getting gas back. Is gas life-critical? No. But it means no hot water, no cooking (for those with a gas stove) and no certainty that things won’t go boom when you DO turn our supply back on.
  • The Interwebs are amazing and amazingly evil. Everyone is still learning how to use these tools to communicate critical info but OMG the vitriol, poison and lies that come in the midst of good and useful info. Just check #MVGasFire to see what I mean. Before the National Transportation Safety Board (because gas lines transport gas) even arrived, people had “proof” that this was the result of a Russian hacker attack. Because this part of Massachusetts is home to a lot of immigrants, there was a theory that this was some convoluted plot to expose illegal migrants. All hogwash but stoking itself into a frenzy.
  • Human beings are amazing. My neighbors, all looking out for one another. Random strangers donating everything to get the shelters running. A shelter tweeting that it needs coffee and getting dozens of java boxes. Calls going out for baby supplies, pet supplies, pillows, canned goods, you name it, and regular people loading their cars … Amazing.
  • But not all. There are !@#$ in every situation. In our case, a guy named Steve. Steve came rushing down the street, cell phone pressed to his ear to tell us the explosions were working their way up a nearby street and would be here in minutes. Scared the daylights out of all of us, especially the kids who saw the adults freak out. We later drove that street. Nothing. Crickets. Saw him sitting in a car with an out-of-state license plate, probably waiting for everyone to evacuate. We and another neighbor stood watch over empty houses because we thought (and still do) that he was casing the neighborhood. No matter how helpful and kind the vast majority of people are, there are always a few who bring the good vibe crashing down. [There was a report of minor looting but not on our street. We had no proof, so couldn’t call the police — and they were frantically busy anyway.]
  • IT is a true barrier in this case. Columbia Gas so bobbled their response that the Governor of Massachusetts handed leadership of the response to another utility, Eversource, and brought in crews from around the region. None of their systems talk to one another, which really complicates relief efforts. Maps, lists, contact info all have to be retyped from system to system. That’s nuts and so easily solvable.
  • First responders and their helpers, who worked long shifts with minimal sleep, do a job I couldn’t. There aren’t enough thank yous possible for the fire crews who came from as far away as Maine, the police and ambulances from all over the MA/NH/ME region and the utility crews from as far as Ohio. None of them created this situation and all are doing as much as they can to help.

It all comes back to this: How did we get here? The NTSB is still investigating but it appears that 48 miles of pipe are so old that stretches simply failed when the gas lines somehow were over-pressurized. This over-pressure made its way through the system, into gas meters and homes, blowing out protective mechanisms and, when exposed to a spark, causing an explosion. And there’s a lesson, too: if we don’t pay attention to maintenance, infrastructure failures are catastrophic. I don’t know what the ultimate total bill will be to Columbia Gas but it’s got to be more than just replacing these pipes as part of a maintenance plan. They’re on the hook now for meals eaten out, hotel bills, childcare an, of course, the damage caused by the explosion. And it’s not clear how the over-pressure came to be; sensors were on the wrong pipes, for example. Still lots to learn.

But thanks again for checking in. We’re fine. Lots of people aren’t. If you’d like to help, the Boston Globe has a great list, here.

UPDATE: Our gas was restored mid-day on Monday, but many aren’t so lucky and will spend more time in shelters and in unheated homes, when they can go home. In the greater scheme of things, this was no big deal –hurricane Florence and typhoon Mangkhut caused much more harm– but this was as local to me as it gets. Thanks again for your concern, it means a great deal. I am now going to take 5 hot showers in a row. Maybe 10. Because I can.

The cover image has nothing to do with anything. It’s just pretty and we need something pretty!