More than a year after Hurricane Sandy struck northeastern cities, the mold that flooding left behind continues to threaten the region’s recovery and overall public health. Seasoned specialists, meanwhile, are working to eradicate the harmful spores and educate residents about the need for action.
When Todd Nugent took his company to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to do mold remediation, he learned a lesson that could improve the response to Sandy: If a community does not have access to fast, professional clean-up services after flooding, misinformation rapidly fills the vacuum. ”Because they didn’t have proper inspectors come in,” Nugent said, “residents didn’t have the knowledge to go forward and do proper remediation. It made a bad situation worse.”
The consequences of this knowledge gap are dangerous. There are “jobs where neighbors were standing in four inches of asbestos pipe insulation or floor tile,” said Nugent, who specializes in microbial remediation. “I’ve seen giant piles of lead paint, lead dust. And people are brushing up their clothing against asbestos and lead and bringing it back to their kids and endangering their family.”
As Nugent reflected on the state and federal response to Hurricane Katrina, employees of his company, Synatech Incorporated, labored diligently in the Far Rockaways of New York City. Their task was to remove mold from the basement of one of the 70,000 to 80,000 homes hit by severe flooding from Sandy.
On the night the storm came ashore in October 2012, homeowner Jorge Gonzalo watched eight feet of water barrel down the streets of his neighborhood, carrying pieces of the nearby boardwalk for blocks and overpowering everything in its path. His basement was flooded nearly to the ceiling. Though he worked with his son in the days after the storm to remove soaked and moldy pieces of drywall from the basement, they could not prevent mold from quickly growing on the wood and foundation of his home.
Gonzalo and his son stopped work on the basement after a couple of days because they began feeling sick. Then Gonzalo was briefly hospitalized for respiratory and other health problems. According to Nugent, it could have been much worse. “There’s a big misconception that goes something like ‘big deal, it’s mold, mold has been around forever,’” he said. “But it is a big deal, and it can be hazardous in some cases.” In fact, mold can be toxic and may cause headaches, nausea, loss of appetite, fatigue, inability to concentrate, memory loss and even permanent lung disease.
In January 2013, former mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a $15 million program to remove mold in 2,000 homes throughout neighborhoods most affected by Sandy. Many are wary, however, that this campaign will barely scratch the surface of a problem that requires the deployment of trained professionals into tens of thousands of homes, apartment buildings and small businesses throughout New York.
As a professional with 20 years of experience in the field, Nugent is convinced that using local, trained union workers is critical for an undertaking of this magnitude. Synatech’s headquarters is in Long Beach, N.J., which Sandy hit hard. After the storm, he said, “we saw other companies come in from Texas and Alabama, and they weren’t received real well. They pulled guys right off the street and gave them a respirator, and sent them in and they did a horrible job. The horror stories are just one after the other.”
“The reason I use union laborers,” he went on, “is the knowledge that comes with it. I know that these guys are trained, they’ve been through the paces, and they’ve done the schooling.” A connection to the region also ensures a quality job. “They have more respect for their work, and more honor,” Nugent said.
Through the union, Synatech has access to more than 1,000 local, professionally trained workers ready to respond to the huge influx of business since Sandy. In addition to thorough training, the company provides workers with respirators and full-body suits. To safeguard the health of families living with mold and the surrounding community, Synatech seals off the infected area with an air-tight containment system to prevent mold spores from circulating throughout a house.
Nugent said more must be done to communicate with residents who need help with mold cleanup. “People should know more about the preparation that we take, the personal protection for the employees, the machinery involved.” With more outreach, they will see that “there’s a science to this,” he said. “We need to educate people in order to minimize the risk.”
ALIGN: The Alliance for a Greater New York, a grantee of the Surdna Foundation, aims to unite worker, community, and other allies to build a more just and sustainable New York.
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.