Maybe your house got a little leaky during the storm at the end of last week. Maybe it was much worse. The next morning, it’d have been the smell that tipped you off: a faint mustiness, initially — just enough to hint at the presence of another life form. Soon the air will be swimming with “mold farts,” as they’re sometimes called, an unbearable odor of stewing moist rot. Or you spot a little furry patch of discoloration at first, but then within hours it’s creeping up and out, burrowing its roots deeper into the baseboard and wall. Even a mold patch the size of a dime contains millions of spores. Many of them are already airborne, as your nose won’t let you forget. Mold can envelop every single surface of a room — walls, floor, ceiling — in less than a week. Stachybotrys, the one everyone knows as “toxic black mold,” is the bad kind — but in fact lots are toxic, most are allergen-producing, and all of them unhealthy houseguests. They bring headaches, nausea, joint pain. On top of the spores and farts, mold can give off poison gases and mycotoxins that can wreak havoc on nervous systems. Some people develop tremors. It can be dire for asthmatics and the immunocompromised.
Last week, Hurricane Ida brought the immediate danger of drowning, killing more than 50 people. Many somewhat luckier residents merely had their possessions wrecked. But the danger from the storm didn’t stop there, because once the waters recede, those spores start to grow. And if you’re calling for help this week, you may not be able to get it.
“It’s crazy right now. I gotta get to like ten people in ten different locations at the same time since the storm,” says Tal Saar, owner of New York Mold Specialist. “In the five boroughs, Connecticut, and Jersey, we’ve had five trucks out at all times — through the weekend, on the holiday. Everything is booked out. People are waiting weeks for us to come. There’s some companies that are saying a month or two. Two to three weeks is good.”
Tim Wong is in a similar predicament. In a normal week, Wong, who runs Green Orchard Group, an environmental-remediation company, might get 20 calls. This week, he’s had more than 200. “It’s been insane. Since Wednesday night or Thursday morning, our division hasn’t stopped working around the clock, with all our equipment out. There is simply not enough equipment. You don’t have enough pumps, you don’t have enough dehumidifiers, you don’t have enough fans. And then you have to have manpower. The guys can only work so many hours, they’re already doing 12-, 14-hour shifts,” he says. “Thursday and part of Friday was really about water removal. And then Friday and over the weekend was all about mold.”
Moreover, it can’t wait. Even a day or two of moisture in a small area can be enough to jump-start a mold colony, especially in dark and humid areas such as a basement or inside a wall. The silent menace moves in almost immediately. “It’s growing on wet structures,” explains Liat Saar of Apex Mold Specialists in Brooklyn. “It can be wet Sheetrock, or the flooring, behind the ceilings and walls. Sometimes it’s visible, but it’s also growing behind the walls in the dark areas where you cannot see it.”
Technically, it’s possible to stop mold from beginning to grow by rapidly drying surfaces and using a dehumidifier to dry out the air, according to Robert Weitz, the CEO of RTK Environmental, a mold-inspection company. He calls mold “very opportunistic … 24 to 48 hours is a really short period of time when you’ve had water in your basement. A lot of times it doesn’t even get pumped out that fast. And the humidity levels really quickly will be at 100 percent,” he says. (High humidity can be enough to fuel a mold monster, even if the surfaces are no longer wet.) “When something like [Ida] happens, it’s such a nightmare, because the remediation companies can’t get in quickly enough, because they’re so backed up,” says Weitz. “So even [a day or so later], mold is already growing on those surfaces.”
Look around on the internet’s dubious how-to sites, and there are plenty of home remedies: duct-tape the mold, bleach it. But these are only superficial. “In a very small area, bleach will help to kill the mold and will visually make it look like it’s not there,” says Weitz. “But the problem with that is: where did the mold come from? You haven’t done anything to clean the back of the surface, or the wood structure that’s behind that material. You didn’t clean the other side of the Sheetrock, which got wet also. And that’s in a nice dark space, which is going to grow more mold, because mold likes dark spaces. The problem you have to solve is why did it grow? Why is it there?”
So it’s probably best to consult a professional, but trouble may still be afoot even if you can get an appointment. Mold spores themselves are not the only opportunistic carpetbaggers looking to leech off the remnants of a storm. There are a subset of contractors who intermittently travel the country chasing storms, according to Weitz. In the days after Ida hit, he spoke with a couple up from Georgia and a contractor down from Rochester. Some of them are good, but every year, disaster victims get snookered by shady contractors both local and further flung “who want to go in and they want to rip and tear, usually more than is necessary. They like creating a big bill.” Liat Saar recommends investigating any mold-mitigation company and making sure it is licensed. (For what it’s worth, Wong says that there may not be a ton of nonlocal contractors coming in right now to attend to the surge, because the storm hit so many areas in addition to New York.)
Informed by reports of post-Sandy malfeasance (20,000 homes were damaged by the storm), New York State in 2015 passed a new law requiring licenses for mold-treatment companies, and, importantly, requiring that inspection and remediation be done by separate firms. This stipulation “really took an industry that was basically the Wild West and made it something that is much more logical and rational,” Weitz says. “With Sandy, people were going in, and a lot of them would come in from out of state like we’re seeing now. And they’d charge them to rebuild it too, before they dried everything out. Locked all the moisture in, and then it would grow mold after they rebuilt it.” The lessons of Sandy have made insurers more likely to cover invasive procedures immediately. “Now, when there’s water damage like this, the first thing they want to do is rip out that Sheetrock,” Weitz says.
New York State has already asked insurance companies to speed process storm-related claims, apparently having learned what Weitz and all mold inspectors know. “Mold is like a fire. It has to be dealt with right away, or it will keep accumulating. It will keep spreading. You’ve got to put it out.”