New is a common trait of places that have confronted disaster — new businesses, new houses, new schools and new roads. Drive along McFarland Boulevard in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, or Range Line Road in Joplin, Missouri, and you’ll pass shopping center after big box retailer built in the eight years since catastrophic tornadoes hit those towns.
It’s a subtlety that could be missed by a casual visitor. It’s more obvious to those whose families have lived there for generations, who can look at a spot and see into the past. Those people see new and remember what once was there and the day it was destroyed.
The same is true, albeit on a smaller scale, in South Lawrence, North Andover and Andover. There are houses rebuilt since the natural gas explosions and fires last Sept. 13, roads newly paved, and a new park at the South Common in Lawrence, one of those places where a neighborhood of temporary trailers lodged families forced out of their homes by a lack of heat and hot water.
There are new tennis courts at Lawrence High School. In thousands of kitchens and basements, there are new stovetops, boilers and water heaters. New is a sign of progress. In this case, new is also a symbol of recovery and a persistent reminder of the disaster that occurred a year ago this week.
To be sure, there are obvious scars. Some buildings that burned when a surge of over-pressurized methane overtook Columbia Gas’ pipelines in the Merrimack Valley have yet to be rebuilt, or the restoration is creeping along. In some cases, businesses forced to close for months on end due to a lack of gas for cooking reopened but have yet to recreate the regular patronage that sustained them.
Then there are long ribbons of asphalt patch along streets where gas lines were replaced but repaving won’t occur until it fits the schedules of local public works departments — in some cases, it could take four years.
And, for dozens of people injured in the disaster — and one family who lost their son — the wounds are much deeper.
Some will be made more bearable by the reparations made by Columbia Gas and its insurers including settlements with the family of Leonel Rondon, 18, who was killed when a chimney fell on top of his car, and with members of the Figueroa family who were badly inured by an explosion. Terms of those weren’t disclosed, though the utility also agreed to pay $80 million to the three communities for the costs they incurred, and $143 million to those people directly impacted. In all the company and its insurers say they’ve spent $1.6 billion in the aftermath of the disaster.
Money, of course, does not completely heal those injuries, or make the pain go away.
While it may be difficult to impute any good in the confusion and fear of last Sept. 13, or of the tedious and frustrating recovery that followed, without a doubt the ordeal pulled together the elected and nonprofit leaders of the three communities. It energized efforts to support the local business community. And, say what you will about the hasty recovery, it resulted in a brand new network of gas lines and upgrades to thousands of homes and businesses in the area.
Above all, we can look back in relief that it wasn’t worse.
Despite the loss of that day’s fires and prolonged recovery, it’s a wonder more people were not injured or killed. Mercifully the scale of the disaster was nothing like that caused by hurricanes, floods or tornadoes that have afflicted other parts of the country in the past several years.
Memories of last fall’s gas disaster are fresh and will be for a while. But even as they fade, and the rest of the street work and rebuilding is finished, there will always be the reminders — not only in what’s missing but in everything new that was put in its place.