A push is on to deliver hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid to Long Island residents plagued with mold in their Sandy-ravaged homes.
Funds for mold remediation are contained in the $60 billion Sandy aid package that has passed in the U.S. Senate but which is awaiting a vote in the House expected Tuesday.
Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said mold is making homes unlivable and stalling rapid repairs for many. He urged federal officials to take steps so that money will flow promptly to affected homeowners once the package passes Congress and is signed by the president.
"We know that 300,000 homes in the New York-New Jersey area have suffered significant water damage. . . . All too high a percentage of those who suffered water damage have mold or will have mold," Schumer said at a news conference with Nassau and Suffolk county officials at the home of Seaford resident Larry Elliott.
"So many houses have so much mold in them that you can't live in them -- even if the house has electricity and even if it has heat, if it still has mold . . . you can't move back," he said.
Elliott, 85, is awaiting mold work before he starts major reconstruction on his canal-front home that was flooded with more than 3 feet of water.
Mold, which can start to grow on a damp surface within a day or two, has plagued flooded homes from Long Beach to Montauk since superstorm Sandy struck Oct. 29. Molds need moisture and nutrients -- contained in building materials -- to grow. Failure to remove contaminated materials and reduce moisture and humidity can lead to serious long-term health risks for occupants, including respiratory problems.
Both Nassau and Suffolk counties have pressed federal and state officials for help. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which provides advice to residents on the importance of tackling mold, does not provide money to help.
So officials will take an approach first done on a large scale after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. First a waiver is needed to direct funds from HUD community development block grants to mold remediation and then guidelines need to be drafted to set up the program to deliver the aid to homeowners, officials said.
With FEMA's help, Nassau and Suffolk secured help for residents from various nonprofits, including AmeriCorps and United Way. So far, volunteers have helped 81 homes in Suffolk and 124 in Nassau, with another 250 scheduled for the work.
To ensure consistency, Suffolk County plans to hire a professional environmental company to do indoor air quality assessments for about $500 per home post muck-out. Further remediation, if needed, could cost thousands of dollars more per house, said Samuel Chu, the county's labor department commissioner. "We view this issue seriously," he said.
One resident aware of mold's health risks is Eileen Barry, a bronze sculptor whose East Islip home and studio flooded Oct. 29.
Barry paid to have mold taken care of within days of the storm but could afford to attack only the crawl space. But the mold came back and it was not until she became severely ill with a respiratory condition -- FEMA officials insisted it was her house making her sick -- that she realized the problem.
A subsequent test by an environmental consultant found 10 types of mold in the two-story home. Now staying at the Courtyard Marriott in Ronkonkoma, she said Tuesday: "You don't always see mold. But when I went into the crawl space just the other day, you can see it back on the two-by-four rafters."
She awaits a flood insurance payout to again tackle the issue.
Brendan Broderick, of Hauppauge environmental consulting firm J.C. Broderick & Associates that provides advice on how to deal with water damage and mold after catastrophes, said there was one blessing from Sandy: It struck at a cooler, less humid time of year. "The one silver lining if there is any is the climate afterward resulted in lower temperatures and lower relative humidity, which minimized the spread of moisture and therefore mold growth."
Dr. Shefali Shah, a Long Beach ear, nose and throat doctor, said she has seen a dramatic rise in patients with sinus irritations as a result of all the dust and mold in the air. "Given the entire town is devastated, it's everywhere around us," Shah said.
Those insured by FEMA's National Flood Insurance Program may be covered for mold and mildew damage, FEMA spokesman John Mills said, providing the damage occurs in connection with a covered direct physical loss from flooding.
"If such damage is the result of wicking -- water's been absorbed by say, drywall -- it is covered under the flood insurance program," he said.
Elliott, a dentist, said work was delayed until around Christmas while trying to find a contractor -- which enabled mold to spread throughout his home. "I'd even sleep on the windowsill to get back in here," he said.