Since last Thursday, the House of Mercy has been busier than usual. The part shelter/part church/part donations center is among the places people affected by the Merrimack Valley gas explosions can go for help.
Their building, in an industrial corner of Lawrence, is a cramped space nearly floor-to-ceiling with diapers, bottled water and canned food.
Mabel Valenzuela, who works at House of Mercy, walks through a tight hallway, surveying the inventory.
“This chaos that you see here — we’ve been getting a lot of donations from the community,” Valenzuela says. “So what we’re doing is dividing kids’ clothes, men’s clothes, so when families come in, we’re able to assist them better.”
She says “it’s hard to tell” how long they’ll be helping people affected by the gas explosions that damaged or destroyed homes, killed one person, and injured dozens.
“I don’t even think the city [of Lawrence] has an answer to that,” Valenzuela says. “So we are going to help people as long as they need to be helped.”
It could be months, so House of Mercy has a cache of warm clothes in anticipation of colder weather.
Among the visitors is Betsy Santiago of South Lawrence. She’s getting diapers, pillows, towels and food. She has an electric stove but life is still a struggle without gas, which affects both her heat and hot water.
“We gotta fill up the tub with the boiled water,” she says. “It’s going to be at least a month or two until they get to us.
“We hope for the best. We just want everything to go back to normal,” she says. “We pray for the best. That’s all.”
There are lots of prayers at House of Mercy, where some people say God is the only one who can help when they’ve lost so much.
A group surrounds a crying woman whose basement was destroyed by a fire and hasn’t been able to return home. She has nowhere to go. In addition to the prayers, she receives a list of shelters.
Hoping For ‘Somewhat Normal’
Across the Merrimack River, in South Lawrence, you’d be hard-pressed to find a restaurant that’s open, because the gas in the area is shut off.
John Farrington owns Carleen’s Coffee Shoppe, a breakfast and lunch place. All you can hear is the loud hum of appliances.
“On a normal morning, we’d have 75 to 80 people in here, all giving the waitresses a hard time, the waitresses giving them a hard time,” Farrington says, looking around his empty restaurant. “You definitely wouldn’t hear the refrigerator humming over there. It would be all drowned out by the music and the talking and the chatting and the dishwasher being way too loud back there. But it’s the sounds that I miss now.”
Farrington says he’s lost about $12,000 in food since last week. He’s worried about his waitresses like Michaeleen Ruberto.
“For the waitresses, it’s day-to-day, we’re used to getting that cash every single day,” she says. “I’m a week out of work. I’m really feeling it. Really feeling it. I’m not gonna run out and go and get another job. This is my home. I love this place. But it’s just trying to find a way to kinda keep my head above water until things calm down and go back to somewhat normal.”
Restaurant owner Farrington says he was in the midst of the busy season, finally scratching his way up after the recession.
“I was happy and looking forward to good times. It was going really well,” Farrington says. “And now, it’s all crashed down.”
He says he just put up fall decorations and feels that it’ll probably be time for winter decorations when he opens again. But by then, Farrington thinks all of his employees will have found other work.