Gas outage enters day five with some still in the cold

Andy Nelson

About 370 homes and businesses in north Evanston and south Wilmette were still in the cold Monday night, four days after the start of a natural gas outage.

Nicor said 95 percent of them could regain natural gas service as soon as an adult returns home to let technicians ignite the pilot light.

The company added 90 crews Monday to the 300 workers already putting in around-the-clock shifts. The company, which received help from People’s Gas and North Shore Gas, began restoring service Sunday night to the 1,053 homes and businesses that had weathered three days of the coldest temperatures so far this season.

Many city residents fled their freezing-cold homes to stay with friends and family or at hotels. The Hilton Garden Inn, 1818 Maple Ave., was full Sunday night. The hotel’s normal weekend occupancy rate is about 30 percent .

The gas outages began after a water main broke in Wilmette Friday morning and flooded the natural gas delivery system. Nicor attempted to reintroduce gas Saturday, but the damage was worse than expected.

Kris Lathan, a Nicor media representative, said the outage was the worst in the company’s 50-year history. Nicor, which serves parts of northern Illinois, is the state’s largest gas company, with more than 2 million customers.

The outage covered more than 30 blocks surrounding Green Bay Road and Central Street. Ninety percent of the affected customers were in Evanston.

At Monday night’s Evanston City Council meeting, Nicor representatives urged residents to return to their homes. But Max Rubin, the city’s director of facilities management, said some customers whose heat had been restored later lost it again when water blocked gas flows.

Ald. Stephen Engelman (7th), who represents most of the affected residents, said on Sunday that Nicor could have done a better job of communicating with its customers.

“I’m not getting any feedback, and my residents are not getting any feedback,” he said.

The city will seek reimbursement from Nicor for vehicles, equipment and manpower used during the outages, Rubin said. He said an estimate of the expenses will be available in the next week or two.

Some businesses lost almost all of their customers. Ed Sevilla, the general manager of Cafe Luciano’s, 2676 Green Bay Road, lost the use of his gas ovens for nearly four days. By Monday, he was worried about unused food rotting.

Sevilla said insurance might cover some of the loss.

Marilyn Wilson, who lives on the 2300 block of Prairie Avenue, said she was one of the lucky ones — Nicor crews woke her up at 2:35 a.m. Monday and restored her heat. Wilson said workers were very courteous, even when they ran into difficulties with her furnace.

She said the city could have done better communicating, especially with those who lack the resources to leave their homes for a hotel.

Marybeth O’Mara, who lives on the 1900 block of Grant Street, was still waiting for her heat to come on Monday afternoon. O’Mara’s family had received space heaters from Nicor — but they arrived a little later than she expected.

“They just came in the last hour,” she said. “We called for them last night.”

O’Mara said the first thing she would do when heat was restored was take a warm shower and do laundry.

“We’re just keeping our fingers crossed,” she said.