Opinion: Still without answers, a stream of refugees copes in Massachusetts

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LAWRENCE, Mass. — Emmanuel Peguero, 7, thought he had been walking for 80 miles on Saturday. And how many days would it be before he could return to his own home? One thousand, he predicted.

In reality, his trek was closer to 1 mile. It seemed much longer, though, because of the extraordinary circumstances in which his family — and thousands of others — suddenly found themselves.

On Thursday, a still-unexplained gas leak touched off scores of explosions and fires that ripped through three Boston suburbs. Thousands of people were evacuated from their homes, many of which are still under quarantine and in areas where multiple new gas leaks were reported Saturday.

This freak disaster and its chaotic aftermath have given rise to an unusual sight in modern-day America — a river of humanity, lugging only the belongings they can carry in overloaded wagons, roller bags, strollers, laundry hampers and black plastic garbage bags slung over their shoulders. They carried plants, dairy items, jugs of milk; one woman pulled a vacuum cleaner behind her.

The tableau of urban refugees is most vivid in Lawrence, a city where the Merrimack River, lined with acres of old brick textile mills, separates the haves (those in North Lawrence who have electricity) from the have-nots (those in South Lawrence who have no electricity and where homes are still off-limits).

The evacuations were not mandatory, and many people opted to stay in their neighborhoods despite the absence of electricity and gas. Those who left faced police blockades and could access their homes only by walking across the city’s grand bridges, which were built in another era. They returned to the bridge with their belongings, a scene reminiscent of those in a forced migration.

Their cars are often parked miles away, if not quite the 80 miles of little Emmanuel’s imagination. Emmanuel’s guess of being out of his home for 1,000 days may be extreme, but officials have not given residents a clear sense of when they can return. There is no curfew, and residents can come and go.

New gas leaks were reported Saturday, adding an extra layer of fear and confusion for those displaced. Their houses were still off-limits as utility crews continued to shut off gas meters house by house, accompanied by locksmiths. As of Saturday, 17,000 customers in the three towns affected — Lawrence, Andover and North Andover — were still without power.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Katharine Q. Seelye © 2018 The New York Times

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