JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Hundreds of people were without gas to heat their homes, cook their food and take hot showers on Thursday after multiple gas leaks were found at a Jacksonville apartment complex.
As of Thursday, natural gas had been shut off at the government-subsidized housing complex Valencia Way, formally Eureka Gardens, for more than three weeks. The majority of the residents have not been relocated to other housing.
U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, a Democrat representing Florida's 5th Congressional District, is calling on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to take immediate action.
"When I found out the conditions that existed at Valencia, you know, it was deplorable that they would have women and children taking baths in the parking lot, which is not safe for the women, the children, often, or the handicapped. This should not happen with HUD nor with the management company," Lawson said. "I'm asking for temporary housing and transportation to all of these residences."
In the meantime, pods with showers inside have been placed in parking lots throughout the complex and the Salvation Army has been providing hot meals to residents for weeks.
"It's really unsanitary when you get 400 units times people within the household. That's not right," said Mona Lisa Arnold, who lives at Valencia Way. "It's very stressful and causing me to have an emotional breakdown over everything they have done to me."
The Millennia Companies owns the housing complex. The company also owns Calloway Cove, formerly named Washington Heights under previous ownership, where there was a fire that sent seven people to the hospital in July. Gas service company TECO Energy told the I-TEAM it investigated a report of the smell of gas at the complex prior to the fire.
According to Valerie Jerome, with the Millennia Companies, on Oct. 2, the smell of gas was reported at Valencia Way apartments. Jerome said a leak was detected, the site of the leak was excavated and repairs were made.
Jerome said the line pressure was tested and the pressure dropped, indicating there were leaks elsewhere. Jerome described detecting more leaks and making more repairs, but the pressure continuing to drop.
Jerome told the I-TEAM that the entire underground infrastructure is interconnected and interrelated. The first phase of the gas line was built in 1967 and the second phase was built in 1969. The Millennia Companies' representative described the lines as not having shutoff valves, meaning there is no way to isolate leaks.
Jerome said the underground infrastructure has been gradually deteriorating over time, claiming it's decades old.
According to Millennia Companies, crews began working to install new infrastructure the week of Oct. 14. Jerome claimed the new system will have shutoff valves.
In a statement, Millennia Companies said, "We understand this is a difficult time for our residents, and that is why we are working diligently to restore service to the buildings on a rolling basis; as work is completed for each phase, service will be restored, expediting the process."
"I think the infrastructure isn't right," Arnold said. "I think they need to get someone outside the jurisdiction of the state of Florida to do a real inspection on the property."
Valencia Way told the I-TEAM it offered hotel suites for people 65 and older who live at the complex. Management said about a third of those people have taken that offer. When asked when the gas would be restored, management said it didn't have a concrete answer.
Lawson said the management company is cutting corners and HUD is not providing enough oversight.
"They can't tell you right now when these services will be up again. They are making an estimate," Lawson said. "HUD is subsidizing these housing complexes and HUD has to make sure they are doing what they are supposed to do."
The congressman said HUD is supposed to be getting back in touch with him Friday.