While the immediate impact of Hurricane Sandy may have receded for them, the residents of Far Rockaway continue to struggle with the unpleasant and health-endangering problem of mold in their homes. And many of them feel that New York City has not done enough to address the issue.
Derek Casey – whose Rockaway condominium was flooded by the hurricane’s unleashed waters – expressed his frustrations to CBS Channel 2’s Sean Hennessey. “The mold is here and it’s more than two months later and it’s still growing. We should have had it removed by now,” he complained. “I’m very concerned about what we cannot see, more so than what we can see,” he said. “I wonder if the government will ever come and help remove all this mold.”
According to a new survey by the New York Communities for Change, 65 percent of the homes in Far Rockaway still contain Sandy-generated mold and that “mold has been growing in thousands of households.” The seemingly intractable problem is so widespread that the survey claims more than a third of the private houses in the Rockaways have mold. “The data is appalling,” said NY Communities for Change’s Amelia Adams.
Public Advocate Bill de Blasio spoke out against what he views as the city administration’s lack of action. “This has to be addressed aggressively. If you don’t address it aggressively, more and more people get sick. More and more homes and apartments can’t be lived in,” de Blasio said. But the only official response from the city thus far has been, “While mold in homes can exacerbate asthma, it can be successfully managed by homeowners and contractors.”
That type of comment, however, doesn’t do much for people like Javier Torres and Lesly Escobar, who have been advised that it would cost them approximately $10,000 to fully expunge the mold that completely covers their home’s exterior walls. “We don’t have anyone to remove it. We don’t have the finances to be able to,” Escobar said. The survey further revealed that many Far Rockaway homeowners who did pay the hefty charges to have mold removed from their residences are now unable to afford any rebuilding.
The disgusting and potentially toxic mold is not the only difficulty still plaguing the victims of the hurricane in the Rockaways. Shockingly, thousands of them are reportedly still living without heat, hot water, electricity and effective public assistance. Jorge Gonzalo, 66, an Army veteran, and his mother, Pura Gonzalo, 89, have had to continue contending with cold weather, darkness, and a seemingly nonchalant attitude by authorities. But besides having no choice but to light candles at night or turn on their stove to counteract the cold, the Gonzalos’ basement remains infested with mold.
“I am worried we are coughing,” said Pura Gonzalo. “Jorge tried to clean as much as he could with Clorox, but the mold is now all over the house. He is not in good health and I am afraid he will get worse.”
Volunteers employed by the Met Council on Jewish Poverty, a well-established social service agency, have learned from their post-Sandy relief experiences that only one in five families in the affected areas is hiring professional mold cleaning services, a low number that is obviously a result of the sobering fact that mold remediation often costs several thousand dollars. The families who cannot afford professional mold removal are either painting over the unhealthy substance or purchasing cheap and ultimately ineffective cleanup kits.
Many of New York City’s religious leaders and elected officials are urging Mayor Bloomberg to include mold remediation in the city’s Rapid Repairs program, which was put in place to help residential property owners hurt by Hurricane Sandy perform emergency repairs including restoration of heat, power and hot water. “Faith leaders are calling on Mayor Bloomberg to commit to a series of action steps to make his Rapid Repairs program live up to its name,” said Joseph McKellar, executive director of Queens Congregations United for Action, an advocacy group.
A report by that coalition asserts the administration’s relief response has been “slow and inadequate” in Queens. For example, as of a few weeks ago, only 174 homes (out of 38,000 homes and businesses on the Rockaway Peninsula) had received assistance through Rapid Repairs, while more than 8,000 more were still waiting to be inspected. Moreover, Queens Congregations United for Action learned that health conditions in the affected community have deteriorated dangerously: “Contamination of homes and air caused by microbial growth due to flooding and a mold epidemic has led to pulmonary problems dubbed the ‘Rockaway Cough.’”
Met Council CEO Willie Rapfogel cautions that the mold problem extends far beyond the Rockaways. “It’s the unspoken issue, a huge health concern, not only in Far Rockaway, but in South Brooklyn and Staten Island as well,” Rapfogel said. “We talk all the time about obesity and the need to control it and how expensive a health problem it is, but if nothing is done now about mold remediation, in two years we are going to spend many millions to treat thousands of people with serious breathing problems.”
While he strongly advises hurricane victims who can afford to pay for professional mold cleaning to do so, Rapfogel emphasizes that it makes sense to provide assistance quickly to the many New Yorkers who lack the needed funds, many of them seniors or families with children.
“We have an obligation to do so,” said Rapfogel who is calling on New Yorkers to call the mayor and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn to insist that mold remediation be covered by the Rapid Repairs program. “If enough people call, they will pay attention,” he said.
A lengthy comment on the website theyeshivaworld.com by a reader calling himself “Avroom” offers a vivid example of the often overwhelming difficulties Far Rockaway homeowners are being forced to deal with:
“I live in the Far Rockaway area and my home was badly damaged by the storm. I can tell you from experience that a big part of the problem is that people are being taken advantage of.
We too had a mold issue. We had to hire three separate companies to remediate the mold. The first two were owned and operated by Yidden. I paid them nearly $10,000 combined and they didn’t do the job! They both told me that they would come back as needed to treat the mold as we progressed with demolishing the first floor of the house (certain areas – such as the beams under the floors and inside the walls – aren’t accessible until demolition is performed). They both used a legitimate chemical to kill the mold the first time they came to my house. However, on subsequent visits, as more beams were exposed neither of them used real chemicals! The first guy used bleach!! I’m not sure the second guy used anything (he sent two young kids to the house and when I came back to lock up the house about 30 minutes after they were supposed to have been done spraying, I didn’t smell ANY chemicals!!!). When I asked him about this, the second guy promised to come to the house to take a look for himself; not surprisingly, he never did!
In addition to not doing what they were paid to do, neither of them told me about fumigating the house (spraying alone – which is what most people focus on – is NOT ENOUGH), negative air machines, or painting the beams with a special “primer” that kills mold and prevents re-infestation.
So then I needed to hire a third company! One of the local yeshivas was recommending a particular company which was owned by a shomer Shabbos Jew. I called him for an estimate. He wanted $7,500 to re-spray my house (no fumigation, just spraying with a “wand”) and to paint with that special “primer.” I got an additional estimate from someone outside the community (also licensed, insured and highly recommended), this “outsider” sprayed, fumigated, painted, used a negative air machine and installed a de-humidifier in my crawl space for $5,300 (labor and materials)!!!! Clearly, he doesn’t have to pay for yeshiva tuition, kosher food, sheitels, shul membership, etc…. and, therefore, doesn’t have to rip anyone off!!!
People need to speak honestly about what’s going on. It’s a very sad situation. I know a retired couple who paid $19,000 to have a boiler and hot water heater changed!! It’s a rachmanus (pity). Where is the leadership?????”