Lawrence Fire Relief Efforts Continue

Clara Gomez, a baker in Uncommons, brought four bags of clothing donations to South Lawrence Middle School and has three more to deliver. She stayed for two hours helping to sort the items and met some of the families that were displaced by last week’s fire who were searching through the donations. Gomez met one woman who was pregnant when the shock of the fire induced labor. Now she has a newborn baby and no home. Her family is desperately working to find somewhere to live. After last Monday’s fire in Lawrence, Phillips Academy students joined with community members and relief agencies to assist those affected by the fire. The Phillips Academy Red Cross club has collected $230 so far through the sale of bracelets, and the Alianza Latina club collected $388 at Game Night last Friday. Jamie Devlin, the Interim Executive Director of Merrimack Valley Red Cross, said that of the 21 displaced families the Red Cross is assisting, five have already found new homes. The Red Cross will provide rent assistance to the families, paying the security deposit and the first month’s rent. The Merrimack Valley Red Cross’ initial fundraising goal of $88,000 has already been reached, and they are still tallying the exact amount raised. Lawrence Pumps, a company located across the street from the location of the fire, donated $24,000 to Red Cross, and Bank of America donated $25,000. Individuals in the community donated much of the remaining amount. Deb Duxbury, Director of Emergency and Volunteer Services of Merrimack Valley Red Cross, sent an email requesting volunteers to do follow-up casework, data entry and office volunteering in the fire aftermath. Duxbury ended her email by emphasizing that “we still have a lot to do for this fire.” Many families still need to find new homes and are working on replacing lost identifications, such as driver’s licenses and passports. “Everything you would have in a house, they need to replace,” Devlin said, including furniture, linens, pots and pans. The Lawrence Fire Department Fire Investigation Unit is still undergoing an investigation of the scene, according to Fire Chief Peter Takvorian. A task force spent the weekend interviewing witnesses to learn about the first few stages of the fire and to determine any pertinent information about the building structure. The Fire Investigation Unit was at the site on Tuesday, searching through the rubble to discover what other equipment was at the site, since part of the building was under renovation. The Mayor’s Office is working with the Office of Development and insurance companies to clean the area and to begin redevelopment as soon as possible. Officials are working to access money from FEMA and other state and federal funds. The city’s goal is for businesses to reopen, and for relief agencies such as Habitat for Humanity, which had built two homes in the area, to resume their projects. Overall Devlin said, “Things are going pretty well—there are a lot of resources at the ready.” Because there has been extensive media coverage of the fire, many individuals have donated or offered assistance. However, most fires do not receive so much attention. In 2007, the Red Cross responded to 39 fires in Lawrence and helped 139 families. Devlin said, “This month alone, in the Merrimack Valley, the Red Cross responded to 17 fires and assisted 38 families.” Sixteen families are still displaced and looking for a home. Families who have not yet found new homes still reside in public spaces, such as school gymnasiums, including the gymnasium at South Lawrence East School for part of last week. Gabby Suarez, an eighth grade student at South Lawrence East Middle School, said last Tuesday, “We usually use the big gym… but since there are people living in there we can’t—it’s kind of strange knowing that there are people living in the gym.” The aftermath of this fire will continue to affect the Lawrence community until all of the displaced families find a reasonable shelter and the block is redeveloped. Dean of Students Marlys Edwards said that it is easy to feel sheltered at Phillips Academy, but that students should not forget that events in Lawrence do impact students, faculty and staff members. There are still many opportunities to aid the relief efforts. PA Red Cross is collecting donations to help families in need, Alianza Latina is collecting toiletries in all the dorms, and the Dean of Students Office is accepting all types of unopened toiletries.