The dark spots that Superstorm Sandy left behind

Mold-related respiratory problems continue as tens of thousands of homes remain untreated a year after the storm

Volunteers from the Respond & Rebuild group remove mold from a house damaged by Superstorm Sandy in the Rockaway neighborhood of Queens.
Lee Celano/Getty Images

NEW YORK — When Yvonne Rankine, a pastor in Far Rockaway, Queens, returned to her white-brick-and-stucco, two-story house shortly after Superstorm Sandy, the basement was still flooded with four and a half feet of water.

“We had no heat, no power,” Rankine said. “We tried to make the best of it, staying there with kerosene heat, but by January we had to seek shelter somewhere else.”

Even with the kerosene heat, the house was uncomfortably cold. But there was another factor that drove Rankine, her husband, and her octogenarian aunt from their home: the blooming mold slowly taking over their house, spreading from their waterlogged basement.

“It looked like these dark spots, something bleeding through the walls,” Rankine said. “It made me feel really congested. There was a tightness in my chest, a feeling I’d never felt before. I was worried about our health.”

A few weeks after Sandy, storm-damaged areas up and down the coast were inundated with a second flood — one composed of contractors offering to help people get back on their feet with clean-up services, including mold remediation. Many of them were accredited. Too many of them were not. Some residents reported paying thousands of dollars for ineffective treatment. Others reported paying for unnecessary treatment. An ABC investigation found remediation contractors who were willing to tell homeowners they had a mold problem even when none existed.

“If a bunch of people in matching T-shirts and Tyvek suits come and say they’re doing something about your mold, people don’t always understand what actually has and hasn’t been done,” said Terri Bennett, a member of Respond & Rebuild, a team of recovery experts that has worked on hundreds of mold-infested homes in New York.

Meanwhile volunteer groups were offering ambiguously phrased services like “mold suppression,” spraying moldy surfaces without making any attempt to dry out the moisture that will inevitably cause the mold to return. Without any unified standard of what constitutes useful mold remediation, some experts felt the volunteers were actually making a confusing situation even worse.

I started to worry that this could be a similar situation to the first responders at 9/11.

“There aren’t any regulations that say you can’t go into a home and charge people for remediation if you’re just spraying and not dehumidifying,” Bennett said. “That’s happening to this day. It’s hard to acknowledge, but in that way the nonprofit world is sort of complicit in the problem.”

“It’s estimated that in New York City alone, about 70,000 homes had sustained flooding,” said Bill Sothern, a certified industrial hygienist and the founder of MicroEcologies, which specializes in mold remediation. “I’d guess that half or more of those did not have proper remediation done. Either they did nothing at all, or they did it minimally, leaving the structural wood components alone and just putting the sheetrock back up. You’re talking about 30,000 to 40,000 homes with potentially serious mold problems going untreated.”

Dr. Hylton Lightman, who sees thousands of patients though his Total Family Care practice in Far Rockaway, said the number of his patients suffering from respiratory problems increased significantly in the months after the storm and remains high.

“I started seeing an increase in the number of respiratory infections, bronchospasm and wheezing,” Lightman said. "I started to worry that this could be a similar situation to the first responders at 9/11, so I began to keep records. The respiratory issues are up 10 percent or more over previous years."

A close-up look at mold from the storm.
Nick Pinto

Lightman’s findings aren’t unique to the Rockaways. Doctors in storm-soaked parts of New Jersey are also reporting elevated levels of pulmonary symptoms since the storm. While prolonged exposure to most kinds of mold isn’t likely to be fatal to a healthy adult, it can be especially dangerous to more vulnerable people.

“It’s the asthmatics, the immune-compromised and the people with underlying chronic lung disease who are most at risk of worse outcomes or possible death,” Lightman said. “If you have a young child or a baby whose airways are still developing, mold exposure can predispose them to future respiratory problems. Here in Far Rockaway, we’ve got a young population and a lot of kids. I’m worried about what the long-term effects will be in the next five to 10 years.”

A report (PDF) issued six months after Sandy by a coalition of New York advocacy groups found “the acute need for mold remediation across New York City has not abated, and mold’s disproportionate impact on low-income and immigrant communities has resulted in displacement, sickness and continued crisis in Sandy-affected neighborhoods.”

Out of a sample survey of 690 storm-damaged homes, 420 had visible mold infestations. Most of those surveyed had attempted some form of mold remediation, but one-third of those that did had seen the mold return. About a quarter of the people in households that had undertaken mold remediation reported some sort of respiratory sickness associated with mold exposure. Predictably, the health problems were especially bad among the elderly and the very young.

No one knows how extensive the problem of post-Sandy mold really is. No government agency, relief organization or volunteer group is tallying the number of mold-damaged homes. Researchers at Columbia University have recently secured funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to study the role of mold — both storm-related and not — on respiratory problems in low-income neighborhoods. But that study is only just getting underway, and will cover a small sample set of 350 homes. In the absence of firmer numbers, health experts concerned about mold are left to rely on educated guesswork.

‘It’s an epidemic’

Colleen Dalton, a retired police officer who lives on Beach 112th Street in Rockaway Park, thought she did everything right. As soon as the flooding in her home subsided, she went looking for mold remediators. She called the local franchises of a national mold-remediation company, but they were backed up for weeks. Eventually, she managed to get a Rhode-Island-based outfit from the same company to come work on her home. But weeks later, after the contractors were long gone, the mold was back.

Dalton turned to a volunteer crew, who gutted her basement and put up fresh drywall.

“The mold grew back immediately,” she said. “Within 36 hours, it looked like a painting. Green, yellow, black — all kinds of colors.”

Dalton’s mold problem was so persistent that it took several more visits from remediators before it was finally under control. Dalton, who grew up in the Rockaways, said almost everyone she knows in the area has been battling mold since the storm.

“It’s an epidemic,” she said.

The consequences of a bad initial remediation job are often more dire than simply having to do the job again. Respond & Rebuild worked with one woman a month ago who had sprayed bleach on moldy areas of her Queens home.

“She was offered financial help through a relief program with a deadline, but when they sent people in to look at the home, they didn’t see any mold because she’d temporarily taken care of the problem with the bleach,” Respond & Rebuild’s Bennett said. “Now her whole house is being taken over by mold, and she has no recourse.”

“We tried to remove the wet sheetrock, and we sprayed bleach on the mold,” said Rankine, the pastor. “It wasn’t adequate.”

The mold returned almost immediately.

“You can’t get rid of mold unless you get rid of moisture,” Bennett said. “Drying is the cornerstone of the whole process.”

That often means tearing down a basement — and sometimes the ground floor as well — to its bare structural elements of struts and beams. The beams and struts are likely harboring moisture and mold themselves, so they have to be dried out with some combination of fans, heaters, and industrial-grade dehumidifiers. Those usually need to run for several days, until a specialized gauge shows moisture in the wood is below 15 percent.

People were so eager to build back, but I knew it was going to cause problems.

The next step is to physically remove the mold from any porous surface where it could be lurking. Every surface and every corner must be painstakingly scraped with metal brushes to ensure the mold doesn’t return. It’s unpleasant work; the people doing it need to wear Tyvek suits, goggles and respirator masks to protect them from inhaling potentially dangerous mold spores. When the scraping is over, workers have to wait for the dust to settle before they spray every surface with an anti-fungal solution.

With health and recovery agencies offering little information about mold remediation, few residents ended up undertaking this rigorous, time-consuming and expensive process.

“The Centers for Disease Control, FEMA and the Red Cross were all giving different information on mold. It was never standardized,” Bennett said. “It’s easy to understand how someone would say, ‘I’ve never heard of this before; some people are saying I need to do all these things and it’s going to cost $15,000, other people say I can do it on my own, maybe I’ll do it on my own.’”

Between the poor information available to residents, the slipshod work of poorly trained contractors, and everyone’s desire to rebuild and get back to normal as quickly as possible, it’s no surprise mold continues to be a problem.

“As early as two weeks after the storm, I remember seeing shipments of sheetrock coming into the Rockaways,” Bennett said. “People were so eager to build back, but I knew it was going to cause problems.”

New standards

Dalton, the retired police officer, required half a dozen treatments for her home before it was mold-free. She was able to move back into her house in June. Dalton said she wishes the remediation business was more tightly regulated and certified.

“It’s too bad the city doesn’t have its own certified companies, like they have authorized tow services,” she said.

Local, state and federal government agencies have historically been reluctant to get too deeply involved in mold remediation.

“Have you ever seen a picture of an ostrich with its head buried in the sand?” said Sothern of MicroEcologies. “That would be a good way to describe the institutional response to mold. Governments don’t want to get involved with mold remediation and mold assessment because of the liability associated with it. If they get involved, they’re recognizing a mold problem, and mold problems tend to be litigious.”

In response to Sandy, the Red Cross collaborated with New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg to form Neighborhood Revitalization NYC (NRNYC), a $50 million endeavor aimed at getting New Yorkers proper mold remediation. The program has been hailed by public health experts as an example of how a city ought to respond to residential mold problems after flooding or a storm. Unlike many of the contractors and volunteers who treated the mold cursorily, only to have it return days or weeks later, the project established strict remediation standards backed by scientific consensus, trained contractors to uphold those standards and required the contractors it worked with to carry $5 million in liability coverage.

“It was truly a groundbreaking, benchmark program that’s never really existed before,” said Sothern, who consulted on the project. “There were very few complaints and a great number of successes. The program proves that there’s a way to do this.”

But NRNYC has not had the reach necessary for a city as large as New York.  The program was established with the goal of providing remediation to 2,000 homes throughout the city, and has thus far worked on more than 1,800. But with an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 New York homes in need of remediation, many worry NRNYC isn’t doing enough.

“Things are getting better, we’re getting to more and more houses,” said Nick Charles, a spokesman for NRNYC. “But is there still a lot of work to do? Absolutely.”

But with New York City’s new template in place and more people aware of the health risks of letting mold go untreated, Sothern hopes governments will be more engaged in the future. The lessons of Sandy are important, he said, because coastal residents can almost certainly expect to see storms like Sandy again.

“This problem is going to increase,” Sothern said. “Climate change is working magic.”

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