Day 3: Still not safe to go home
A number of residents of the area near Seventh Street and Orchard Avenue spent their third night away from home Thursday night, as officials determined it was still not safe to return after a natural gas explosion and massive fire Tuesday brought down two houses in their neighborhood.
Xcel Energy crews, firefighters and city officials spent much of Thursday doing “house checks” with residents who live along Seventh Street between Orchard and Elm avenues. In the afternoon, they began allowing residents who live south of Mesa Avenue to return home after spending two nights in local hotels or with family or friends.
Displaced folks have been converging on the nearby Seventh Day Adventist Church, which has served as an assistance center for people to receive hot meals, grocery gift cards, hotel vouchers and other help from the city, the Western Colorado Chapter of the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army.
As of this morning, the evacuation zone had shrunk to include about 10 structures—some single-family, some apartment-type buildings—on Seventh between Orchard and Mesa avenues.
City and Xcel officials will be back on the scene this morning, testing gas levels and assessing the danger associated with people potentially returning to their homes.
An informational session for evacuees is scheduled for 9 a.m. at the church. A hotline—970-549-5130—will be manned beginning at 6 a.m. today with the latest information for affected residents.
Many of those affected were at the makeshift assistance center at the church on Thursday afternoon, when some learned they could soon return home.
Amanda Larson called the past couple of days “crazy.” She said she and her boyfriend stayed in a hotel the first night and with family the next. She said the hardest part has been “just not knowing when you can go home.”
“I’ve been working through all of this, too,” Larson said. “I had to go to Walmart and buy all new clothes to go to work on Tuesday.”
Larry Basta lives at 1812 N. Seventh St. and said he smelled gas on Tuesday morning but didn’t leave home. When he heard the explosion, “I knew exactly what it was.”
“We’ve had explosions, hail, thunder, lightning—everything else has happened,” he said of the past few days. “I’m just waiting for locusts.”
Displaced people have been staying in hotels across the valley, with many staying in a city-reserved block of rooms at the Grand Vista Hotel on Horizon Drive.
Many have received free meals at Pantuso’s Restaurant over the past few days, including Jim McSpadden, who turns 74 today.
He called his donated dinner “very, very nice,” but lamented that his regular routine has been totally disrupted by the incident.
“It would be helpful if I was still 21,” he said good-naturedly.
The abundance of people still in good spirits—despite having their lives literally turned upside-down for days—was obvious, and maybe a bit surprising.
“This isn’t anything compared to what’s been going on back East,” said Ron Lucero, referring to some of the natural disasters and weather events that have recently battered other parts of the country. “We’re lucky that (the explosion) didn’t blow the entire block.”
On the day of the explosion, Carol DuKett-Cotts could not return to her house to even get a pair of shoes. She was forced to walk about two miles in her “stocking feet,” she said. Though a bit frustrated, she also maintained a good attitude Thursday.
“Through this event, I have met so many neighbors and it’s wonderful how everyone has come together. We’re all just kind of supporting each other, laughing when we can,” she said.
“I’m alive, my house is still there. People survived this, there were no fatalities. It’s a blessing,” she said.
That’s not to say that people immediately affected by the explosion and fire did not suffer some level of trauma. Jim Hamlin, the disaster mental health lead for the local Red Cross chapter, was at the assistance center talking with evacuees Thursday.
“Just imagine being displaced from where you live, the comforts of home, and all of that,” Hamlin said. “For people — especially as these things go on for a little while — it gets to be pretty mentally challenging and psychologically challenging.”
Whether evacuees from the immediate area of the blast and fire will be displaced for a fourth night will be determined today. The church will continue to be open as an assistance center for those who need it.
“We want to continue to purge the gas from the sewer lines and continue checking gas levels in the street, in the dirt, in the lawns, around foundations, et cetera,” Grand Junction Public Works Director Greg Trainor on Thursday.
Authorities said gas readings have improved but are not yet at a safe level. They said Thursday’s rain didn’t help ventilation efforts because the wet soil makes it more difficult for the gas to dissipate. More specialized Xcel equipment arrived to help purge the gas lingering beneath the street.
For those people allowed back into their homes, he urged continued caution, and to call 911 from a neighbor’s house if they smell even a trace of natural gas. “Don’t be shy” about calling 911, Trainor said.