How a former US Navy captain was tapped to oversee the cleanup after a series of overpressurized gas lines exploded north of Boston last September
Bostonia – Boston University’s Alumni Magazine
Author: Brian Bergstein
Published: Summer 2019 Issue
In his 25-year career as an officer in the US Navy’s Construction Force, Joseph Albanese did tours in tough places, including Iraq and Afghanistan. He led battalions with hundreds of people who built bases, airfields, schools, and roads before going on to run an entire construction regiment in the Middle East. But none of those war zone operations, he says, proved to be as difficult as the one he led north of Boston in 2018.
Four days after overpressurized gas lines exploded in Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover, Mass.—killing one person, injuring 21, and forcing more than 8,000 people to move out of their homes—Governor Charlie Baker appointed Albanese (Questrom’92) to oversee the costly, complicated, and politically sensitive recovery. The 56-year-old Albanese would have to summon all the organizational and leadership tricks he’d ever learned—and come up with new ones.
In just 11 weeks, from September to December, Albanese oversaw $700 million worth of repairs and reconstruction to homes, businesses, and natural-gas pipelines in the Merrimack Valley. But it wasn’t just the size of the operation that made it daunting. After all, Albanese lives for huge projects, not only the ones he ran as a captain in the Naval Construction Battalions, known as the Seabees, but also as the founder and CEO of Commodore Builders, a Boston-area company that specializes in hotels, hospitals, corporate centers, and university campuses.
No, what made this unlike anything else was how he had to manage and cajole thousands of people from disparate groups—employees of the local gas and electric companies, contractors, tradespeople shipped in from all over, government officials, and public relations specialists—who had never worked together and hadn’t trained for such a complex crisis.
“It was like building the fire engine on the way to the fire,” Albanese says. And this job couldn’t be done with quick, blanket approaches. Each home, each business, and each street was a special case, demanding different kinds of repairs and attention.
It didn’t always go smoothly. The operation missed its original deadline of having heat and hot water restored before Thanksgiving. Hundreds of people were stuck in trailers, hotels, and other temporary housing well into an exceedingly wet and frigid December. Although extending the deadline still bothers Albanese months later, it hasn’t made him defensive. When he talks about it, you can tell he’s already filed away the lessons learned in case there’s a next time.
“All you have to do is spend one hot minute in a crisis with Joe,” says Dan Rivera, mayor of Lawrence, “and you see he does the things leaders are supposed to do.”
IT SMELLS LIKE WAR
Around 4 pm on September 13, a crew hired by Columbia Gas was working under the streets of Lawrence, replacing an old cast-iron gas distribution pipe with a new plastic one. This is a common upgrade that should have made things safer, because old pipes leak. No one, however, had taken the crucial step of turning off the sensors that measure gas pressure in the old main. So when that old line was disconnected, automatic regulating devices in the area read the resulting loss of gas pressure as a problem, and these regulators began to pump high-pressure gas into the neighborhood. Within minutes, the inrushing gas set off explosions and fires that destroyed or damaged 131 structures, primarily in Lawrence, but also in neighboring Andover and North Andover.
A chimney fell on an SUV parked in a driveway in Lawrence, killing 18-year-old Leonel Rondon as he sat in the driver’s seat. The utility companies quickly shut off gas and electricity to more than 10,000 homes and businesses to prevent more destruction, but it was already widespread—and even worse than it may have appeared. The overpressurization had broken gas-fueled appliances in homes and businesses that looked otherwise unscathed. Heat and hot water could not be turned back on in any location until it was inspected and deemed safe.
National news outlets pounced on the disaster. Coming on top of smaller explosions and leaks that had occurred all over the country, it highlighted the vulnerability of the vast network of natural-gas infrastructure buried just about everywhere people live. So, like most people in the Boston area, Albanese was well aware of what had happened. He just didn’t know it was about to take over his life.
On the afternoon of September 17, Albanese was playing golf in an annual tournament benefiting Commodore Builders’ charitable foundation. On the seventh hole, his cell phone rang. It was a senior vice president at Eversource, a rival utility the governor had assigned to help fix the Columbia Gas mess, who told Albanese that his name was “being bounced around” as a potential leader of the recovery effort. On the 10th hole, Matthew Beaton, the commonwealth’s secretary of energy and environmental affairs, called to ask some biographical questions, sussing out whether Albanese would be an appropriate choice. On the 13th hole, his phone rang again: Could you please come up to Lawrence? Albanese left the course at the 14th hole and went home to shower and change. Two hours later he was walking into a Columbia Gas conference room in Lawrence.
He knew he was being called in for disaster recovery. Still, the magnitude of that disaster surprised him. “It was eerie,” he says. “Having been to war, it smelled like that. People had been working 24/7 since the 13th. People were tired, people were haggard. I walked in freshly showered, with a sport jacket on, and did not fit into that crowd.”
Baker was in the room, along with Beaton, their staffs, local officials, and executives from Eversource and NiSource, the Columbia Gas parent company. Behind the governor was a handwritten organizational chart showing each aspect of the recovery. There was one group overseeing the work that had to be done in the streets to replace 45 miles of gas lines. A group reinstating gas to 5,200 businesses. Another group doing the same for 10,000 homes. A group making sure people who were handling repairs themselves were getting reimbursed by Columbia Gas. A group overseeing temporary housing, meal delivery, and other humanitarian efforts for people thrown out of their homes. A group for communications, both internal and external. Finally, there was a group overseeing the typical day-to-day operations at Columbia Gas. “And then he had my name on the top of the org chart,” Albanese says. “Which, for me, was sobering. Daunting.”
Baker introduced him to NiSource CEO Joe Hamrock and chief operating officer Pablo Vegas. “I want you to meet Joe Albanese,” Baker told them. “You work for him.”
Five hours earlier, Albanese had been relaxing on the golf course. Now he was being imposed on a stressed-out team as leader. “What’s the dynamic going to be?” he wondered. “How do you do that and make sure we’re all playing well in the sandbox?”
It’s not that he feared a mutiny: after all, the state had issued an order threatening a $1 million penalty for any incident where the utility “didn’t listen to what I told them to do,” Albanese says. Nonetheless, he wanted to be sure he personally connected with members of his new team, so things would proceed as efficiently as possible. That was what it would take if people outside that conference room were to have a chance of getting heat and hot water restored before winter set in.
If this had been a military operation, it would have been easier. In the military, they train constantly for every eventuality, and when a situation arises, everyone knows what to do. There’s a well-defined structure of roles and oversight. Every person is part of a unit that reports to a bigger unit, which reports to some larger organization, and so on. Albanese had to create those structures from scratch.
When he took over, Columbia Gas typically had 180 people working on its Lawrence campus each day. By late October, there were 5,200. At first, one large contracting company was handling most of the work, but when it was apparent that the work was moving too slowly, Albanese brought in three more. On October 8, 400 plumbers were moving through Lawrence, North Andover, and Andover, reconnecting boilers and furnaces or installing new ones. Less than a month later, Albanese’s operation had nearly tripled that number, to 1,150 plumbers. About 200 came on a chartered flight from California.
Everyone had been on a pickup team, thrown together on the fly. Albanese corralled them all into a single organization he could recognize. Back on the day he left the golf course, he’d phoned a former Navy admiral and the admiral’s former deputy, men he had worked for in the Middle East, and asked them to come in and be his deputies. Together they would run a command-and-control operation in a trailer in the back of a Columbia Gas parking lot, a nerve center outfitted with phones, computers, and teleconference equipment.
They carved Lawrence and the nearby towns into eight zones, with a commander for each, and then split each zone into eight subzones. That gave residents a local contact, someone who would become a familiar face for them, and that added to the nitty-gritty information Albanese’s operation gathered every day. They augmented that intelligence from the subzones by closely monitoring complaints on social media. They even designated a few Columbia Gas employees to spend all day, every day, in Lawrence city hall and the Andover and North Andover town halls and report back anything important they heard.
All this “hand-over-hand engagement,” Albanese says, was required because the situations in most homes and businesses were different from one another. Sometimes workers had to build stairs into basements so they could get in and figure out whether a boiler or a furnace needed to be replaced or could be repaired. At least once, workers had to spend half a day clearing junk out of a basement before they could even reach the heating equipment inside.
Albanese and his team tried to standardize whatever they could and looked for little ways to save time. They had trucks continually drive around Lawrence with pipes and fittings, so plumbers were never far from materials they might need. One bottleneck early in the operation was the availability of appliances that workers needed to install in homes and businesses: stoves, furnaces, and hot water heaters were being ordered from all over. Albanese told his team to get ahead of the procurement, to be sure there would be enough appliances on hand to get each day’s projected amount of work done. A contractor responded by turning a Lawrence warehouse into a massive appliance distribution center. Rivera, the city’s mayor, called it “stove mountain—there was literally a mountain of stoves.”
Albanese didn’t just sit in the operations trailer. He’d drive around every day and check on how things were progressing. Occasionally, when residents were complaining on social media, he called them himself so he could figure out what had gone wrong. Rivera says Albanese’s obsession with such details made it nearly impossible for someone to give him an inaccurate status update. “He would say, ‘BS—I was there,’” the mayor recalls.
Yet while disciplined and intensely focused, Albanese didn’t act like a puffed-up drill sergeant. “Joe was never angry,” Rivera says.
That’s an essential aspect of Albanese’s style. He has carefully studied good and bad leaders he’s worked for throughout his career. “Some people think military leadership is the iron fist. I think that motivating people is an art. It doesn’t pay to humiliate people or to beat ’em up,” he says. And after the Merrimack Valley disaster, “People were working really hard. I had to continue to acknowledge that.”
FIGHTING MISSION CREEP
Not everything was entirely under Albanese’s control, which may have prolonged the operation. Mission creep was one problem. As he saw it, the mission should have been simply to relight gas service to homes and businesses as soon as possible. But not everyone agreed. Some constituencies, for example, wanted to first get people set up with temporary heating and hot water solutions. Albanese eventually discouraged that, concerned that it would delay the permanent work at the core of the job.
Other groups argued that this disaster was an ideal opportunity to move neighborhoods off of natural gas and onto energy-efficient new electric cooktops and heating systems. One such advocate, Nathan Phillips, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of earth and environment, spent time in the Merrimack Valley helping to deliver cooktops that work by electric induction and can boil water in 90 seconds. Phillips says the Lawrence disaster was an acute reminder of all the chronic problems caused by fossil fuels in general and natural-gas pipelines in particular, including everyday methane leaks that kill trees and account for a sizable portion of greenhouse gas emissions.
“There are safer and cleaner alternatives for heating our homes,” Phillips says. Plus, those alternatives aren’t necessarily expensive. He says natural gas customers in Massachusetts are already on the hook for more than $9 billion worth of pipeline replacements over the next 16 years. “That amount of money could electrify 20 to 40 percent of households in the commonwealth,” he says.
Albanese understands why some people pushed for electrification. He also thinks it could have happened more widely than it did—only a small percentage of homes ended up getting gas equipment replaced with electric—if electricians had taken more aggressive steps to upgrade circuitry in some homes. But he thinks the effort clouded the main goal: restoring heat and hot water. “We kept having to bring it back to: What’s the mission here? Let’s stay focused on the mission.”
Besides, he adds, it’s not like the recovery operation merely brought things back to where they were before. Thousands of homes and businesses got new equipment that’s far more energy-efficient than what had been in place. And with 45 miles of new pipelines underground, something like this is far less likely to happen again, he says, at least in the Merrimack Valley. “What we put in the street in 5 weeks was really a 10-year program,” he says.
If he had to do it over again, Albanese says, he wouldn’t have let the operation rely on just one contractor at the start. He would have brought in the others right away. “I think you’re better off in a situation like this to attack it with more resources than you ever think you could possibly need and then ratchet those resources back,” he says. “We spent three weeks ramping up, ramping up, ramping up. And those three weeks were three important weeks.”
By mid-December, almost everyone was back in their homes and businesses. Albanese could stop working 6 am to 9 pm seven days a week in Lawrence, and he soon was able to resume most of his usual responsibilities running Commodore Builders. He’s still involved in the aftermath in the Merrimack Valley, however. He’s watching over a second phase of the program, replacing boilers that were temporarily put in some homes as a quick fix. (By May, Columbia Gas had settled most individual claims and had announced an $80 million settlement with the three municipalities.)
If a disaster should strike somewhere else, Albanese says, he’d be willing to step in again to lead the recovery. After all, he has now been thoroughly trained in this work, as a Seabee expects to be. “If this operation were continuing on for six months or eight months—this would have become more efficient,” he says. “I learned so much on this.”