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Lacking heat and a stove, Lawrence-area residents prepare for Thanksgiving

Laura Alefantis (left) helped Hadde Diaz, 4, find a pair of snow pants and a winter jacket as she volunteers at Debbie's Treasure Chest during Keeping The Merrimack Valley Warm Night.
Laura Alefantis (left) helped Hadde Diaz, 4, find a pair of snow pants and a winter jacket as she volunteers at Debbie's Treasure Chest during Keeping The Merrimack Valley Warm Night. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)

For two months, Laura Alefantis has trekked back and forth between different hotel rooms and her work in Lawrence, comforting countless residents who have gone without heat or hot water since the Sept. 13 natural gas disasters rocked the Merrimack Valley.

An administrative assistant at the Lawrence Senior Center, Alefantis will join them in a communal dinner on Thanksgiving Day, too — this time by their side, herself a sufferer of the very same problems that she has helped others cope with as Columbia Gas labors to restore service to the area.

She has been staying in hotels because her Lawrence home has no gas service. No heat, no hot water, no way to cook a turkey for her and her 14-year-old son. So, instead of dinner at home, they will celebrate the holiday with hundreds of other residents, many they have come to know through common suffering over the last eight weeks.

“We’re all in this together, right?” said Alefantis.

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Thanksgiving Day is for giving and sharing and community, and residents across Lawrence, North Andover, and Andover say they have plenty of the holiday spirit. They just don’t have gas service, and so the holiday this year will take on new meaning for thousands of families still affected by the disaster.

Hundreds, including Alefantis, are expected at communal dinners at the Elks Lodge and the trailer park at South Common in Lawrence paid for by Columbia Gas, featuring cultural music and foods such as pea rice and pork shoulder that have become Thanksgiving Day traditions of the area’s Latino community.

Erin Sullivan fed her son Henry who was born on the day of the Columbia Gas Explosions as her other son, Liam, 5, (left) watched television at their home.
Erin Sullivan fed her son Henry who was born on the day of the Columbia Gas Explosions as her other son, Liam, 5, (left) watched television at their home.(Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)

“I envision people just coming together, having their meals, enjoying each other’s stories, connecting with each other, maybe realizing, ‘that’s my neighbor next door,’ ” said Alefantis, who is helping to organize the events. “There has been so much anxiety, frustration that has put people’s spirits down. But it’s efforts like this — it’s such a relief to realize this is still going to happen.”

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Others will get creative with the cooking devices they found on Amazon (and shared with friends on Facebook), and still others will pick up one of the 16,000-plus takeaway meals prepared by the caterer Tuscan Kitchen that Columbia has reserved for families.

Several restaurants that were affected by the outage and now have gas service are planning to be open: Casa Blanca Mexican Restaurant in North Andover said it will offer a holiday buffet for the first time in 12 years, at $10.50 a head. Casa Blanca’s restaurant in Andover opened Friday after going weeks without gas service.

“People still have no gas, they’ll have a choice to come over and get a hot meal, affordable, get their families here to celebrate,” said owner Daniel Vargas, whose family will staff the restaurant because his employees have the day off.

Laura Alefantis and her son, Jonathan Rousseau, 14, ordered takeout from a restaurant near the hotel they've been staying at in Andover.
Laura Alefantis and her son, Jonathan Rousseau, 14, ordered takeout from a restaurant near the hotel they've been staying at in Andover. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)

“At least we have options, given what’s happened,” he said.

That’s the message from community leaders and government officials: Enjoy Thanksgiving any way you can.

“We know it isn’t going to be the Thanksgiving you planned for,” Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera acknowledged at a recent news conference, during which he also encouraged residents to seek alternative housing, to stay warm. Thursday is slated to be very cold, with temperatures expected to peak in the low 20s.

On Tuesday, Columbia Gas said more than 2,300 dwellings remain without gas service, with many not likely to be restored until sometime in December.

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Diana Ruiz, who lives in North Andover with her two sons, had been using space heaters for eight weeks to keep warm and was preparing for a holiday without gas service. Then, on Saturday her house had been “relit” — the term that local executives in charge of the response have used for dwellings that had gas restored — and she can now look forward to Thanksgiving.

But she recognized that others may not be so lucky, and has put out offers on a Facebook group page for those still without gas service who may want the use of her stove.

“There may be that one family that has kids or is struggling to get through the day, not lose it. I figured it would be good if they had an option, even a last-minute option,” Ruiz said. “Everybody’s sort of just displaced. Thanksgiving is just a time to give them a bit of normal back.”

Erin Sullivan of North Andover was longing for that sense of normalcy.

Columbia Gas had agreed to house her family, including three young children — the youngest was born on Sept. 13, the day of the disaster — at a rental in Newburyport. The place was big enough that Sullivan originally planned to host a gathering for extended family members. But then the service to her home was restored, and Sullivan now expects to host Thanksgiving in North Andover — just without a stove.

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Her stove was rendered unusable by the Sept. 13 incident, and Columbia hasn’t replaced it yet. So instead, she plans to take Columbia up on its offer of a free cooked turkey, and maybe prepare some side dishes in a crock pot.

“We’ll make the best of it,” Sullivan said. “We’re just happy to be with our family, and closer to everyone now.”


Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.