A vacant lot and boarded up homes remain on Miller Street in Port Richmond, where a New Year's Day explosion rocked a neighborhood. (Jordan Levy/Billy Penn)

Dozens of residents affected by the New Year’s Day explosion in Port Richmond will soon be getting some added support for their varied recoveries through a cut of $20,000 raised by their neighbors. 

The positive development comes after months of concerns about life in the aftermath of the event, from working out insurance claims to instances of squatting and theft in some temporarily vacated homes.  

Clarity on what caused the blast that destroyed two homes, condemned a third, and displaced dozens nearby doesn’t seem to be as imminent as the fiscal offering. Following an onsite investigation shortly after the Jan. 1 incident, Philadelphia Gas Works made clear its gas lines were still intact. 

The utility has maintained the explosion wasn’t tied to PGW infrastructure.

“Everybody’s just kind of lost, nobody has any answers,” Ken Paul, president of Port Richmond on Patrol and Civic (PROPAC), told Billy Penn, noting the Pa. Public Utility Commission still has an open investigation into the incident. 

The city put up a wooden fence to frame the lots on Miller Street where homes once stood, though they hardly look like it. Homes a couple doors down and across the street are still boarded up, eight months later.

Bucket drop fundraisers, t-shirt sales, and online solicitations garnered the $20k, which PROPAC plans to distribute “straight across the board,” giving each impacted household an equal amount.

After a little vetting, residents who signed up at a July neighborhood meeting will receive a check that “will be around the $400 range,” per Paul. After a follow up meeting for people who couldn’t make the first gathering, the checks will be distributed. 

Much more about the situation remains in flux, including what’s become of homes that ended up too damaged to be inhabited — by their owners, at least. 

No comprehensive cleanup, neighborhood leader says

After the house on the corner of Miller Street exploded in the blast, leaving two vacant lots, the house next door was broken into on at least two occasions.  

By February, police had arrested two squatters on the block, according to KYW.

“We’ve had multiple houses where people have gotten into the homes, because not everybody has gone back,” said Paul, the PROPAC president. “I’m guessing there’s maybe five or six holdouts still down there, where nobody’s in them.”

At least two break-ins were reported at the house next to the empty lots left behind by the explosion. (Jordan Levy/Billy Penn)

Paul, who works for the city’s graffiti-cleanup team known as CLIP, said there hasn’t been a comprehensive cleanup of the impacted houses. Multiple homeowners whose property was damaged by the blast have sold, he said, and new inhabitants are coming into buildings that still have debris left over from the explosion to deal with. 

“I’m still getting phone calls from people doing work and repairs,” including from a new neighbor who just bought a blast-hit home in May, he said. “It’s crazy.”

Not all affected residents are planning to leave, per Paul. Some were already made whole through their insurance, while others are still sorting out claims, waiting on adjusters, or working to put together the means to repair and move back in.

Some uninsured renters have faced significant losses with little hope of restitution.

“For them, life has just kind of come to an abrupt stop,” Paul said. “And nobody hit the play button.”

Investigation could still identify gas leak as cause 

Some neighbors say the New Year’s Day incident resembles a gas explosion that took place around the corner in March 1999. It also destroyed three homes, and it injured eight people.

Miller Street’s main gas pipeline was installed in 1941 and is made of coated steel, the federal standard since the 1970s. 

About 40% of the city’s system is even older, and made of higher-risk cast-iron. These pipes are slowly but surely being replaced at a rate of 30 miles a year, as part of the company’s Pipeline Improvement program. At the current rate, all “unprotected steel service lines and cast iron mains will be replaced by 2038 and 2058, respectively,” per PGW’s website. 

At the end of 2021 there were still over 950 miles of pre-1940 pipes in use, making them among the oldest in the commonwealth, according to a PGW report

Without contradicting what PGW says — that this year’s explosion was not tied to its infrastructure — the PUC investigation could still find that a gas leak was the ultimate cause of this year’s unexpected detonation; the leak could’ve been from the pipes fitted to appliances inside a house. Preventing these leaksare a homeowner’s responsibility.

Once PROPAC distributes the grassroots-generated checks, it will largely step back from efforts concerning the explosion, per Paul, but he thinks his neighbors should perhaps receive more support from local government. 

“It’s still an open investigation and could be that way for a while,” Paul said. “So it’s up to them to try to make themselves whole [and] put Humpty back together.”

Jordan Levy is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn, always aiming to help Philadelphians share their stories. Formerly, he has worked at Document Journal, n+1 Magazine, and The New Republic. He...