Nearly three months after Sandy pushed the ocean clear across the Rockaway spit, there’s a hidden aftermath. In basements and first floors across the peninsula, a vast bloom of dangerous mold is spreading across flood-soaked beams and floorboards, studs and drywall.
Stakes are high. “What starts in the basement can leave a whole house uninhabitable,” Public Advocate Bill De Blasio said in December. “Thousands of New Yorkers’ homes are literally making them sick. We need to get ahead of this problem now. If we wait, this crisis will keep getting worse and even more of our neighbors will find themselves without a safe place to live.”
Three weeks after De Blasio called for a four-point action plan, it’s still not clear that enough is being done to fight the mold. For those who can afford it, or who have insurance that covers it, there are commercial mold remediation companies operating in the Rockaways. Some residents have horror stories about their mold remediators. Some are out-of-state contractors rushing to cash in as many jobs as possible as quickly as possible, doing shoddy work and then disappearing when the mold inevitably returns.
Colleen Dalton and Jeff Vielandi, profiled in the Voice’s cover story on the aftermath of Sandy, are among those home-owners whose first round of insurance-covered mold remediation was ineffective. They’re now waiting for a second treatment.
For those without the means to pay for mold remediation, the options are few. Respond and Rebuild, a team of six experienced disaster-recovery workers who met in Haiti after the earthquake, has been operating in the Rockaways since the hurricane. A couple months ago, when volunteers were still pouring into the Rockaways, Respond and Rebuild was able to field up to 15 crews at a time, mucking out basements, tearing out ruined sheetrock and tossing ruined furniture and belongings to prepare homes for mold remediation.
The flood of volunteers has since slowed to a trickle, though, and while Respond and Rebuild has held on to some dedicated volunteers, they’re currently limited by manpower and equipment to fielding five or six crews at a time — enough to complete mold remediation for about four homes a week. At that rate, it will take them 20 weeks to churn through the backlog of 80 homes on their waiting list — too long for anyone’s comfort.
“Mold is a serious issue, says Ian Schlake of Respond and Rebuild. “If you leave it untreated, it continues to grow. It leads to respiratory illness and it rots the wood, leaving the property valueless.”
Most of the molds growing in the Rockaways cause respiratory problems simply because their spores create a fine particulate dust that clogs people’s airways and causes infections.. But remediation teams have also seen the dreaded black mold that thrived in homes damaged by Katrina. Black mold produces toxins that can be deadly.
Once a basement has been stripped down to its bare structural elements, the real work of mold remediation begins. Using fans, heaters, and industrial-strength dehumidifiers, volunteers dry out the air, leeching moisture out of waterlogged studs and beams. They use a special moisture gauge to know when the lumber in a house has dried out to below 15-percent. The drying process alone can take several days.
Then comes the really tedious part. Suited up in wellingtons, Tyvek bunny suits, goggles and P100 respirator masks, a remediation team comes into the basement and scours every porous surface with metal brushes and angle-grinders, abrading the tell-tale spots of mold. When the scouring is complete, the teams leave to let the toxic dust settle, then return with HEPA-filter-equipped vacuums to suck it up. Finally, they spray down all the surfaces with an anti-fungal solution like Benefect or Shockwave.
It’s a tedious and time-consuming process, and the members of Respond and Rebuild worry that if mold remediation on the Rockaways doesn’t speed up, the problem will only get worse. They’re helping to train more people do the work, and they’ve launched an Indiegogo fundraising campaign to scale up their own efforts.