As News of Shutdown Spreads, Neighbors Grow Frustrated with Atmos

atmosResidents of two neighborhoods that are divided by Marsh Lane woke last Friday to the horrific news — a sixth grader had perished in a home explosion that also sent four of her family members to the hospital.

Every day since, they’ve awakened to more bad news. Sometimes, they say, it even comes late at night, from a knock on the door and a voice on the other side telling them to pack their belongings, their homes are being evacuated.

This morning, they awoke to learn that even if they were still able to live in their homes, it would likely be without hot water or heat. Atmos Energy announced in a 5 a.m. press conference that the company was taking the unprecedented step of shutting down gas service to 2,800 homes on streets on either side of Marsh Lane, between Midway Drive and Webb Chapel Drive on the East and West, and Walnut Hill and Northwest Highway to the north and south.

It’s another source of angst for already heartbroken and fearful sets of communities.

It’s been a bit of a roller coaster for Midway Hollow resident Staci Reznik, who said that she is trying to keep things in perspective. Last night she learned her home wasn’t in the area Atmos was conducting safety surveys, which worried her. This morning, she found that she was among the 2,800 households that would be without gas service for at least three weeks.

“Last night I was angry,” she said. “This morning I am included, so I have mixed emotions.”

But Reznik said she is thankful she has family nearby so her daughter has a place to go play while she prepares to move to a hotel for the time being.

“I think this has been a PR nightmare,” she said. “And the funneling of information has been beyond abysmal. I am home this morning waiting for someone to communicate to me what my resources are, what I need to do.”
“Atmos sure knows how to contact us when we’re delayed on a bill, but they are not good at communicating to everyone about this,” she said.
Reznik doesn’t have to evacuate, but life without hot water and heat with a toddler didn’t sound like a good idea.

“I don’t think this will be just three weeks,” she said. “I don’t think it’s going to be as fluid as they say it’s going to be. There are so many other things related to this that we don’t know about. How will trash be picked up if we can’t use the alleys? How are we securing the neighborhood?”

Reznik said that attempting to find out how she could be reimbursed for hotel stays has also been confusing. “The fire marshals came to my house and gave us information about where to go,” she said, adding that she then went to both locations and was met with confusion.
“They don’t know how they’re going to compensate people,” she said. “They’re thinking maybe a per diem.”

Dallas city councilman Omar Narvaez told residents around noon that hotel vouchers and gift cards for expenses were going to be distributed beginning today from 4 p.m. to 11 p.m., and then through from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday through Saturday at Walnut Hill Recreation Center or Bachman Lake Recreation Center.

Reznik was also furious about the optics involved in something else she witnessed while she was out today. “They’re running radar on Northwest Highway today,” she fumed. “That’s what the Dallas police are doing right now for our neighborhood.”

Reznik’s neighbors are also worried, furious, and fed up.

“Been displaced since Tuesday paying out of pocket for a hotel with the promise of quick reimbursement has me filled with uncertainty and frustration,” Kenneth Knight said.

Still more say that residents have been reporting gas leaks for some time, and are angry it took a fatal incident for the company to do repairs. Their comments echo earlier concerns residents told us about this week.

“I’m glad they are fixing it, but why did it take so long for this to happen?” said Jessica Ramirez, adding that she hopes the energy company learns from this experience. “I believe we could have gotten this fixed in a smarter and more efficient way. Not just have everyone scramble at the last minute and feel like they were being ripped away from their home.”

“The issue isn’t what Atmos is doing to repair the problem, the issue is that they have not been maintaining their lines or meters for such a significant period of time,” Greg Sharry said. “Now, in a last-ditch effort to gain some semblance of neighborhood support, they are attempting to fix their equipment that has fallen into disrepair.”

“The gas line situation has been of concern since 2006,” Susan Magee said. “Did it take the death of a young child to initiate action?”

Longtime Midway Hollow resident Greg Stubbs said his frustration with Atmos dates back more than 20 years.

“I am disgusted by Atmos,” he said. “When I moved into my house in 1995 I was told that I could not place my trash in the alleyway for pick up because the alley had been condemned by Atmos Energy due to a gas leak. That was 1995!”

Another neighbor felt that part of the infrastructure issues were part of the territory of living in an established neighborhood.

“I think it’s good that Atmos is fixing these lines now. We have to remember that we live in an old neighborhood with old gas lines, water, and sewage,” Logan Caldwell said. “Some houses around here have galvanized water lines which are starting to leak; we have old gas lines running to our houses that have been rusting for 70 plus years.”

“I would rather they shut it all down and replace it than have to live with the constant uncertainty of whether my line is stable or volatile, of whether I will have to evacuate at any moment,” Anne Harding said. “This is an inconvenience, for sure, and no heat or hot water for a month will be no fun. But at least it’s proactive.”

“Yes, it’s inconvenient — and rare,” Ted Gangi agreed. “But, I’d rather be safe. Certainly hard on families with kids and/or limited resources, but I’ll bet they finish sooner than they say.

Meg Fahrenbrook said she’s also worried about leaving the neighborhoods vulnerable to thieves.

“Another worry I have is now that all of Dallas knows there is a gas shutdown with residents potentially not in their homes, what will the Dallas Police Department be doing to ensure our homes and properties are safe from potential break ins?” she asked.

Midway Hollow Crime Watch president Alex Irving said he has reached out to Atmos to see if the company would be willing to contribute toward paying for additional Extended Neighborhood Patrol hours, but he also felt confident that the officers that usually take care of the neighborhood were on top of things.

He said that the organization’s contact point with the department assured him that law enforcement had been working to pool resources to secure the area, including the Dallas County Sheriff’s office, Dallas marshals, and Dallas ISD police.

But other neighbors just outside the proposed shutdown zone said they’re worried.

“I want to know the criteria of Lakemont as the Eastern border,” said Lynette Friedrich. “It should extend to Midway. What was criteria for establishing the borders? Appears arbitrary without given the rationale.”

“The neighborhood  was all built approximately the same time – the infrastructure is 65 plus years old.”

She’d like to see the parameters extended to include the eastern half of Midway Hollow.  Sahar Haji and other neighbors agree.

“My concern is for folks like us who live just outside the announced parameter, should we be worried about our lines?” Haji asked. “Also, are there any resources on looking up the dates when last time our gas-lines were replaced?”

“It concerns me we will not be getting updated lines,” Audrey Schmeltz agreed.

“It concerns me that it doesn’t go to Midway,” Elizabeth Losito said.

As the news began to spread, homeowners in other areas of Dallas began to question the integrity of their gas lines, too – especially after Atmos officials said that recent rains were partly to blame for the shifts and breaks in the older steel pipes that run beneath the homes.

“If this is the case in this neighborhood, then seems logical same situation in my far north Dallas neighborhood, correct?” one person asked the company on Twitter. “Same city, same rain, same soil. Same geological makeup.”

“Does anyone know if *any* other neighborhoods of Dallas are being checked for gas leaks?” another user asked.  “Did geotechnical engineer only look at formations under evacuated area, or elsewhere? We all got rain.”

We asked other Dallas residents if they were worried, and the concerns rolled in.

“I live in Park Forest a mile or two away and we are very concerned,” Chantel Bright said. “I’ve decided to go the extreme and replace my gas range with an electric convection oven and do away with gas altogether. Don’t have to scare me twice! Just this morning as I lit the burner to make breakfast I thought to myself “Is this it? Is this how they are going to find me, in my house robe with raccoon eyes and messy bun?”

“I have been thinking about Beckley Club Estates a lot during this,” said Amanda Cobra, who says she only recently moved from that area. “That’s my old neighborhood in Oak Cliff just behind the Zoo. It was neglected for years and the infrastructure for all utilities was crumbling.”

“Then they decided to do the new deck park over there and so they are scrambling to fix things before the construction on the deck park starts,” she said, adding that the neighborhood is hilly and gas lines were often shut off for repair work. “Makes me nervous for my former neighbors.”

“I’m not an engineer, but there are older neighborhoods around Dallas like Amanda mentioned, and this could be the tip of the infrastructure iceberg,” David Burrows agreed.

“It is a low-level concern at the moment,” said Kirsten Tye. “My meter was recently replaced, but I have no idea about the lines.”

But Tye has questions.

“What’s the age range of the lines causing problems? Was the usable lifespan of the lines known at the time of installation?” she asked. “What is the usable lifespan of the new lines and will Atmos take care of replacing those in a timely fashion (before the usable lifespan has been exceeded)? How many of the leaks are caused by the lines maintained by Atmos and how many are the responsibility of the home or property owner?”

Hollywood Heights homeowner Renee Strickland said she would like more transparency and better information from Atmos.

“Where can we access information on when the lines in each neighborhood were last replaced/overhauled? I’d like to know where my neighborhood is in terms of the lifespan of these lines,” she said.

“I live in a neighborhood built in the 1920s so I am definitely concerned,” said Karen Eubank, who said a recent spate of home repairs opened her eyes to how old — and poorly maintained — the city’s infrastructure can be.

“I think these pipes are laid and never thought about again,” she said, adding that her home repairs revealed just how delicate galvanized water pipe can be.

“That’s water but the gas lines are often laid extremely close to the water lines and are the same age,” she said. “I had a leak when I first moved here in the early 1990s and they had to dig up my backyard. I have a gas lantern that has not been lit in years and I wonder where the heck that gas is going? Just into the wind? If I light a match will it blow?”

“Yes, I’m extremely worried about this issue living in an older neighborhood,” she said.

“My neighborhood in East Dallas was built in the ’50s (my house in 1956),” Andrea Perkins said. “What is the status with the gas delivery infrastructure over here, and what’s the plan to assess and address? Will residents be alerted to the short and long-term plan, if there is one?”

And Lakewood-area residents pointed out that the situation Atmos is dealing with now is not new.

“This is not a new issue,” Shari North said. “Our University Terrace neighborhood had a gas explosion over a year ago. They dug up the alleys and replaced a lot of old lines. It took them forever.”

“Very worried,” Kendal Cook said regarding her new fears. “There was a gas explosion in my area (east Dallas/Lakewood) about a year ago, a kitchen blew up and a family had to move out while Atmos fixed the issue.”

“No clue whether it is related to the current explosions, but occasionally you’ll see in our Lakewood FB group, people asking if they smell the gas hovering over the area,” she added. “Seems to happen once or twice a year and everyone can step outside and smell it. My question would be, what can we as a consumer do to check our own gas lines, what can we do to feel safe in our own homes?”

At least one local state legislator is starting the drumbeat for more attention to aging infrastructure.

“It’s time for us to seriously examine the aging infrastructure of the homes in Dallas County,” State Sen. Rafael Anchia said. “The replacement schedule of gas pipes, many of which are corroding cast iron, needs to be accelerated.”

Congressman Marc Veasey said he is also monitoring the situation, and is in contact with Atmos Energy and the National Transportation Safety Board.

Earlier this morning, the state agency that oversees pipeline operators, the Texas Railroad Commission, said it sent inspectors to Dallas to assist in the investigation into the home explosion. Inspectors from the NTSB are already on the scene.