LAWRENCE – Before the Sept. 13 gas explosions and fires, Lawrence market owner Junior Hernandez often had work days where he'd pull in $1,000 in sales, he said.
But closing in on six months since the disaster, Hernandez said his business has dropped off dramatically and many days he only sells $200 worth of products.
Hernandez, a 47 Loring St. store owner, was among several dozen residents and business owners who still haven't been "made whole" since the gas disaster who met Wednesday morning at the Capilla Envagelica Hispana church at 5 Wolcutt Ave.
The business people expressed concern over lost business and products and ongoing issues with filing claims and receiving payments from the natural gas supplier, Columbia Gas.
Some said they've been assigned a variety of insurance claim adjusters who have told them differing things as they try to recover.
"I have a lot of friends who own businesses in South Lawrence that are really struggling," said Hernandez.
Hernandez said the bustling work days prior to the gas disaster haven't returned.
"At the end of the day, it's like a ghost town," said Hernandez, noting the events of Sept. 13 "displaced a lot of people."
Luis Suazo, who owns Suazo Market at 50 Inman St., told the group of similar problems, including the loss of power and an estimated $8,000 he lost in produce and other store sales.
"I have three kids and I have a wife. I lost half of my business," Suazo said.
An over-pressurized gas line on Sept. 13 caused dozens of fires and explosions in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover. One person was killed and others were injured in the disaster, which cut off gas service to 8,600 customers, some into mid-December.
While service has been restored to most of those customers, recovery efforts are expected to continue into 2019 and beyond — including repairing more than 70 miles of roads Columbia Gas had to dig up to replace its gas lines.
The meeting Wednesday morning was also attended by local officials and workers from E For All, a non-profit that was named as the lead organization to conduct outreach to businesses owners impacted by the gas explosion in Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover.
"Today is an opportunity to engage the business community and to provide feedback," said Janin Duran, an E For All outreach worker.
She stressed working together to make both businesses and Lawrence stronger.
"The heart of Lawrence is the small business community. We need to support them," Duran said.
Derek Mitchell, executive director the Lawrence Partnership, which is working with E For All, said the gas disaster affected some 800 businesses.
"Until you are whole, your claim should still be open ... What the city can do here, more than anything, is twist Columbia Gas's arm," said Mitchell, urging the business people to use E For All as a resource.
No one from Columbia Gas was present at the meeting, which lasted about two hours.
In a statement released early Wednesday afternoon, however, Columbia Gas said it "is committed to reimbursing impacted customers for any reasonable expenses that resulted
from the Sept. 13 event and is working to make payments as quickly as possible."
As of March 4, Columbia Gas said they have made payments on 24,040 claims totaling approximately $94.7 million. Of the 24,040 claims paid to date, 2,383 are business claims of $29 million.
There are currently 238 active claims from business customers.
"Each of these claims is unique and we work with each individual customer to assist them in gathering and providing the information we need to make payments on reasonable claims as quickly as possible," according to the Columbia Gas statement.
Residents and businesspeople are also invited to attend a Columbia Gas open house on Saturday, from noon to 2 p.m., at Lawrence High School at 70 North Parish Road.
Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera did not attend the meeting Wednesday. However, he did have a staffer, Wendy Luzon, present.
Reached afterwards, Rivera said he understands both the plight and concerns of the business people affected in the city.
"I can see how they feel left behind ... And I wouldn't stop fighting," he said.