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List of unsafe homes grows: Officials sift through debris for clues

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Three more houses have been deemed unsafe to return to in the devastated Richmond Hill neighborhood, where almost an entire block has become an investigation scene.

About 30 fire, police and federal investigators have been sorting through debris on Fieldfare Way, where a massive explosion leveled homes and killed a Greenwood elementary school teacher and her husband.

Investigators, including Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department homicide detectives, continue to collect debris and process evidence at the site of the blast. Indianapolis Fire Department spokeswoman Rita Burris said they hope to finish that work by the end of the week, but that was an estimate and the best-case scenario.

The investigators are looking at a potential release of natural gas from somewhere inside of homes at the blast site, such as an appliance or valve. Burris said it was standard for homicide detectives to be involved because two people were killed and the cause is still unknown.

City officials were to meet with residents again at Southport Presbyterian Church on Thursday night to keep them informed and answer any questions, Burris said.

They planned to open a multi-agency recovery center at the church today and Saturday to provide a range of services, including how to get information about insurance policies and how to replace lost driver’s licenses.

Various agencies, such as the American Red Cross, planned to be on hand to address needs, interpret insurance policies and answer questions about pets or utility connections.

Homeowners aren’t allowed to return to the 11 homes near the blast site while the investigation is under way, except while firefighters escort them to get personal possessions. Once the investigation is done, the city will inspect those houses and begin the process of repair or demolition.

Inspectors cleared for occupancy three more homes on Fieldfare Way, the epicenter of a fiery blast that rattled windows miles away. Burris said the utilities could be reconnected, and the owners could move back into those houses.

A total of 80 houses suffered at least minor damage, such as broken windows, when a huge explosion rattled the neighborhood off Sherman Drive halfway between Stop 11 and County Line roads.

City inspectors have determined that 32 of the houses, mostly along Fieldfare Way, suffered such major structural damage that they’re unsafe to go back to. They’re doing hour-by-hour checks and by Thursday had ruled three more homes unsafe.

Farther out from the blast site, Richmond Hill residents have been boarding up broken windows, having insurance adjusters assess the damage and getting contractors to start the process of fixing their homes. Thirty insurance adjusters and 10 structural engineers have checked out damaged houses so far.

All homeowners get until Monday to board up their homes, and 11 of the homes will have to be braced with support beams before anyone can enter.

“Some of the walls are so structurally compromised that it would be unsafe to even attempt to enter,” Burris said. “They have to be braced to have some degree of safety.”

Badly damaged houses will have to be braced with exterior wall supports, interior beam supports and temporary walls, she said. That work would need to be done before homeowners could even retrieve prescription medicines or vital documents, she said.

So far, 33 property owners have removed personal items from homes, Burris said. They’ve boarded and secured about half of those houses, and homeowners are trying to brace five more so they can be entered.

More than half of the most severely damaged homes already have been secured, and one has been braced. Homeowners and their contractors have to submit bracing plans to city officials, who must first give approval to ensure safety.

Burris said the city’s primary consideration is the safety of anyone near the site or entering a home.

No one other than homeowners, contractors and insurance adjusters are allowed in the neighborhood. Police continue to guard the perimeter.

They’re not allowing volunteers to come in to help pick up the mess, though several groups have volunteered, Burris said. The city has provided dumpsters where residents can dispose of debris.

“Opportunities for help to clean up the neighborhood are appreciated and many,” she said. “However, due to the ongoing investigation and congestion from contractors and insurance agents, no planned cleanup is available at this time.”

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