In the past several months, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria left paths of destruction worth billions of dollars. The natural disasters destroyed or damaged tens of thousands of homes, business, schools and other properties across hundreds of square miles of the United States.
Each of these hurricanes brought with it excessive moisture, flooding and standing water. Any of these can result in the growth of mold in homes and other buildings impacted or damaged by the storm. Due to this fact and the scale to which hurricanes and other natural disasters can cause damage, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides information on the agency’s website specifically warning people to be aware of mold exposure risks following these types of disasters.
The CDC reports that in flooded or water damaged properties that have experienced mold growth, people who are sensitive to mold may experience stuffy nose, irritated eyes, wheezing or skin irritation. People allergic to mold may have difficulty in breathing and shortness of breath. Those with weakened immune systems and with chronic lung diseases, such as obstructive lung disease, may develop mold infections in their lungs if exposed to certain types of mold.
“Whenever returning to a home or business that has been flooded for more than a day or two, it’s important to recognize that mold is likely present and may cause significant exposure concerns,” said Franco Seif, President at Clark Seif Clark. “In almost all circumstances, the only way to prevent mold growth in a water damaged building is to have it thoroughly cleaned up and comprehensively dried within 24 to 48 hours. Unfortunately, following these types of events, that is almost never possible.”
To help in these situations, Clark Seif Clark’s building science and water damage experts provide indoor environmental quality assessments, testing and monitoring services. If mold or other microbial problems are found, CSC provides oversight and post remediation testing to ensure these issues are comprehensively addressed to protect both workers and future building occupants. Clark Seif Clark also recently sponsored an educational video about mold contamination following a natural disaster that can be seen here:
Fourteen years after a grand jury ordered Broward schools to take control of the mold consuming its buildings, the district has no way to determine whether all of its students and teachers are breathing clean air.
Broward largely relies on school employees to complain before searching for mold or its causes; inspectors do not routinely follow up to ensure that cleanup measures worked; and no one measures how quickly maintenance teams fix problems that allow mold to grow, a Sun Sentinel analysis found.
The Sun Sentinel reviewed thousands of air quality reports and complaints filed by employees since 2003. It also analyzed a database of work orders over the last two school years.
In those years, the district collected about 4,200 work orders to fix leaky roofs, one of the biggest contributors to mold. Records show about one-third of the completed work orders took at least 90 days to close out and about 100 took at least a year.
In addition, those records show about 25 reports about mold or mildew were still unresolved months to years after they were filed, according to the records.
Confronted with the findings, school officials said the work order records can’t be trusted because the district has never accurately tracked their status in any central system. They also said multiple work orders could be submitted for the same problem. Maintenance staff monitor whether the work is done, they said.
Spokeswoman Tracy Clark said the staff is “committed to constantly looking through” work orders to ensure that staff are responding to problems in a timely manner. Sam Bays, director of physical plant operations, said staff members try to get to problems within a few days.
Whether that’s actually happening, there’s no way to prove.
“The information that you’re trying to extract is information that we would love to extract, but we cannot,” said Leo Bobadilla, chief facilities officer.
Prolonged mold exposure can cause a gamut of problems — from allergies to neurological dysfunction — and is particularly harmful to children.
According to U.S. Centers for Disease Control, people who are sensitive to molds can develop nasal stuffiness, throat irritation, coughing or wheezing, eye irritation or skin irritation. People with allergies to mold can develop more severe reactions, and immune-compromised people can suffer serious lung infections if they get exposed to mold.
In 2003, a grand jury slammed the district for an insufficient response to rampant mold problems. It ordered school officials to take a proactive approach to the mold battle, identify the state of the air quality in all of its schools and fix roof leaks and water intrusions as quickly as possible.
“The first priority of any school construction in South Florida should be to keep out the rain. The second should be to make sure the air conditioning systems effectively cool and dehumidify the buildings,” the report said.
But buildings around the district are still beleaguered by roof leaks and air conditioning malfunctions as they wait for the district to begin renovations from 2014 bond money.
As of April, district employees have lodged about 2,800 complaints about air quality since 2003, records show. The records did not always provide detailed descriptions of the problem, but about 230 specifically stated they or their students experienced illness or allergies.
Most of the time, the district’s environmental health team responds to those complaints by checking the room in question and surrounding rooms and closets.
Over the years since the grand jury report, teams documented finding mold about 20 percent of the time that staff searched school rooms. They found excessive humidity or water damage about 35 percent to 40 percent of the time.
Mold grew on students’ desks at Northeast High in Oakland Park, so the inspector advised that custodians wipe the desks with disinfectant and maintenance repair the air conditioner, according to an air quality report from that visit.
Mold sprawled across the entire ceiling in three classrooms at Hallandale High, where the inspector forbid anyone from using the room until a contractor treated it.
It lived in bookshelves at Country Hills Elementary in Coral Springs and chairs at McArthur High in Pembroke Pines. At Gator Run Elementary in Weston, the 99.9 percent humidity level curled papers in one room. Humidity rippled carpeting in a room in Pasadena Lakes Elementary in Pembroke Pines.
The Broward Teachers Union surveyed about 1,200 of its 11,000 members in April, and 500 indicated that they see doctors to deal with health issues they say they experience at work. (Click here to read all of their descriptions and search by school.)
“If Broward Schools really cared about students, those in charge would never send students to schools with these conditions,” a teacher from Northeast High in Oakland Park wrote in the anonymous survey. “Students are always ill, need to leave class to blow their nose, absent because of chronic sinus infections, constant coughing and congestion, watery eyes and nose, red eye from irritation, nausea, and so on.”
‘We were not aware of who to talk to’
The district typically relies on school employees to report mold or the problems that provoke it before staff investigates for mold. Everyone, including teachers, needs to look out for issues and report them immediately, said Roger Riddlemoser, the environmental health and safety director.
But only about one-quarter of those who told the union they feel sick in their classrooms ever asked the district to check their air quality.
The Broward Teachers Union said teachers are afraid to report problems for fear of retaliation. Matt Decker, a school fire inspector, said principals often don’t want to use the little resources they have to hunt for mold.
District officials insisted that they shouldn’t fear retribution for pointing out problems and said they’re trying to make it easier for teachers to report by launching a webpage where they can file a report without divulging their names. Despite the anonymity, spokeswoman Clark said staff still might need to speak with the person to solve the problem.
Teachers interviewed by the Sun Sentinel said no one told them they could ask staff to check their air and no materials are given to teachers about potential hazards. Riddlemoser acknowledged that the district trained facilities services staff about indoor air quality protocol in June, but not teachers.
Clark said Broward could do a better job reaching out to teachers about air quality problems.
Sandra Nunez said her eyes burned and nose ran during school hours for nine years before she discovered she could ask the district to check her room at Hollywood Central.
“We were not aware of who to talk to,” Nunez said.
Tim McKeever, who got so sick working at McFatter Technical College that he left last year, didn’t initially think to alert management when he noticed mold and water stains in his classroom. A doctor he obtained through a worker’s compensation claim recommended that his classroom be tested for mold.
“You walk by it and you don’t think anything of it until you know how dangerous it is,” he said. “It’s something that’s not talked about.”
School staff dealt with about 10 percent of the complaints in the last five years without a visit from the team trained to do air quality assessments, according to records reviewed by the Sun Sentinel.
But even when employees seek the assessments, not everyone is satisfied with the response. The assessments do not gather enough detail and lack follow-up, according to the district’s facilities task force, a community group that advises the School Board on maintenance, new construction and renovation.
In an air quality assessment, environmental health employees check for visible mold, water damage, excessive humidity and other factors.
When they find mold, they advise on-site staff to wipe it with disinfectant. They prescribe work orders to replace water damaged materials and repair malfunctioning air conditioning systems when they find trouble, according to thousands of assessments reviewed by the Sun Sentinel.
Inspectors don’t return unless they get another complaint.
“There’s no real follow-up on that report. A lot of that is, ‘Oh, surface mold, it’s the janitor’s responsibility’ … where a lot of our mold and mildew problems are beyond the walls and ceiling cavities,” said Decker, who is also a member of the facilities task force.
Roger Herde of indoor air quality company DuctMasters said mold frequently lives in ductwork and releases harmful spores through vents without making an appearance in the room.
Those spores in turn can attach to kids’ clothing.
“They bring it on the school bus, they bring it home,” he said. “The kids can’t do anything about it; they have to go to school.”
Years ago, district staff conducted walk-throughs of every school to search for mold.
It trained school staff in the beginning of the year to maintain healthy indoor environments and had them fill out an online, multiple-choice survey halfway through the year that discussed cleanliness, temperature, humidity levels and where mold and mildew growth had been spotted.
Assessment teams then visited each school in the spring to validate the survey complaints and to make sure they were taken care of.
Decker said he’s tried to get the district to do that again, to no avail.
District management said they do not need to do walk-throughs again because they did them to get “baseline” knowledge of the school conditions and now school-based staff can tell them when there’s a problem.
Other districts measure response times
One of the major tenants of the 2003 grand jury report was to stress that Broward fix roof leaks as quickly as possible because leaks provoke mold growth.
Yet district officials say there has never been a way to analyze response times to these problems.
Bays assured that “we live to respond to our customers’ needs. We are very concerned with keeping the kids dry and comfortable.”
Nathalie Lynch-Walsh, a Facilities Task Force member, called it negligent not to measure response times. It’s important to track this, she said, so that the problems of the past don’t recur.
Other school districts regularly assess their response times. Miami-Dade relies on them for staff evaluations, and Orange County schools conduct regular analyses of response times. Palm Beach County schools did not return a request for comment.
Lauren Roth, spokeswoman for Orange County schools, said maintenance staff constantly assess response times to different types of problems to determine where they may need additional resources or training.
Employees even place cards on the walls reminding them of their response times.
Broward said it is switching to a better recording-keeping system that may allow management to measure response times.
“The Stranahan Lung”
Although allergies can develop at any age, constant exposure to indoor molds can trigger reactions in previously healthy children. They’re more at risk than adults because their immune systems are less developed and because they breathe more times per hour than adults do, inhaling more spores, according to the 2003 grand jury report.
At Stranahan High in Fort Lauderdale, they have a name for it.
“We joke about having Stranahan Lung, when you’re away for summer and you feel great and you get back in the building and your sinuses go crazy,” said Thomas Harrison, the athletic director.
The week before school started, he spent just four hours in his building when, he said, the feeling began to creep in. A trash bin, meanwhile, lay waiting to catch raindrops through an exposed ceiling tile.
“Unfortunately it’s become the status quo,” Harrison said.
William Swafford, a mold remediation specialist, said his son would come home from school in a portable classroom at Indian Trace in Weston congested and with sinus headaches. On days off, his son wouldn’t have those problems.
“I knew what it was, it was pretty easy to tell,” he said. “When they go to school fine and they come home stuffy almost every day, you kind of know it’s coming from the school.”
It was no surprise to him, he noted, because he knew the portable struggled with air conditioning malfunctions. He said mold is like an airborne seed that can land on anything and simply needs moisture to grow.
“Any air movement … a door closing from the air pressure can make thousands of mold spores go airborne,” he said. “That’s what you’re breathing in.”
Broward turns off the air conditioning in some buildings when they’re vacant. Administrators told the Sun Sentinel that turning it off prevents the buildings from getting too cold, collecting condensation and causing mold to grow. Miami Dade and Palm Beach schools follow the same procedure.
Some mold and air duct experts said the opposite.
Shutting air conditioners off invites humidity, which in turn invites mold growth, Herde of DuctMasters said.
David Manset, the Oakland Park teacher, has to use a de-humidifier in his classroom to keep teaching.
He started getting monthly upper respiratory infections, sore throat, voice loss and extreme fatigue when he started working there. He had so much post-nasal drip that he took frequent trips to urgent care because he felt like he couldn’t breath.
A Cleveland Clinic doctor diagnosed him with a severe case of nonallergic rhinitis, in which irritants cause him chronic inflammation and make him more susceptible to viral infections.
“Just before coming to see me, he noted that his classroom smelled like mold. There was a visible water leak, and then the thermostat broke and the visible mold colony exploded,” his doctor, David Kaufman, wrote in a letter obtained by the Sun Sentinel. “Clearly this condition has been triggered by exposure to mold.”
‘They begged us’
Broward’s $800 million bond program, approved by voters in 2014, is expected to provide some more permanent solutions to buildings plagued by roof leaks and air conditioning malfunctions that cause mold.
In the two school years that have followed the bond’s passage, Northeast High has recorded more than 60 work orders to fix roof leaks.
The program has faced delays because Broward made numerous errors in estimating the needs of each school. It changed its methods to advertise for and select contractors. Turmoil in the purchasing department meant there was nobody to put construction work out for bid.
“They begged us to get everybody in the community to vote for it,” said Chet Ludwick, who formerly served on an advisory board for the city of Fort Lauderdale. “And we still have schools in this condition.”
In Kashmere Gardens, a historically black neighborhood and one of this city’s poorest, the floodwaters have receded, but sorrow is on full display in the piles that line the street.
Heaps of soggy carpet padding. Chunks of drywall. Splintered boards, broken dressers and moldering mattresses.
A television. A teddy bear. Family photographs and a Holy Bible, thick and leather-bound.
It smells musty. Sour, even.
Ten days after then-Hurricane Harvey blew into these people’s lives — then lingered for days as a weakening storm, dumping epic rainfall on the nation’s fourth-largest city and its environs — the task of cleaning up is daunting. Much of it falls on individuals like Sonia Saldana and her family, and the strangers helping them.
Saldana watched from her driveway on Minden Street as a group of young volunteers from the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, clad in neon orange and yellow safety vests, hauled out drywall and insulation and threw it on her family’s growing pile by the curb. Inside, the house was virtually gutted, with walls ripped out and the furniture gone.
“I’m not a very materialistic person,” Saldana said. “We can replace our clothes, our bed, our furniture. But family, you can’t replace.”
As the grueling cleanup gathered pace, some of the flood’s vast array of dangers abated, if only slightly. The fire department in Crosby, 25 miles northeast of Houston, on Monday lifted an evacuation order covering a radius of 1.5 miles around a chemical plant where flames had erupted four days earlier.
By Monday, the storm’s death toll had surpassed 60, with bodies still being retrieved. Recovery efforts are expected to take years, at a cost that will run to $120 billion to $180 billion, by official estimates.
The personal toll is harder to calculate.
In Kashmere Gardens, the water rose as high as Saldana’s chest on Aug. 26, said the stay-at-home mother, who stands 5 feet 2.
Everyone she’s talked to plans to rebuild, she said, because this neighborhood is home. Her family does too.
Already, Houston has become two cities: a downtown once again bustling, with bars and restaurants full of patrons, businesses reopening and public transportation up and running again. Then there are the flood-ravaged neighborhoods where homeowners by the thousands are carrying out a vast do-it-yourself recovery effort, with most lacking flood insurance to help pay for it.
A few streets over from the Saldanas’ house, a man eyed the detritus on both sides of the street and assessed it this way: “Piles of people’s losses.”
Some losses, of course, went far beyond the material. Across town, grieving relatives were making funeral arrangements for Alonso Guillen, a 31-year-old volunteer rescuer whose body was recovered Sunday. His boat capsized last week while he and two friends were navigating treacherous floodwaters in search of those who needed saving.
Born in Mexico, Guillen was a so-called Dreamer, an immigrant brought illegally into the U.S. as a child. He was protected from deportation after enrolling in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which President Trump is said to be tentatively poised to scrap, with the order delayed for six months to give lawmakers a chance to find an alternative.
Guillen’s mother, who is applying for legal status, told the Houston Chronicle from her home in Piedras Negras, Mexico, that she had been turned back at the border while trying to travel to Lufkin, Texas, for the funeral, which was to take place Tuesday.
Back in Kashmere Gardens, Bridget Henderson looked on as possessions that had symbolized the joy of new life joined the scrap heap. After she gave birth to a premature baby girl a month ago, her family threw a baby shower, lavishing her and her husband with gifts — now ruined.
As the neighborhood flooded last weekend, Henderson and her family were evacuated from their home on Pardee Street, riding away on a city dump truck. On Sunday night, family members turned the damaged house inside out, hauling out furniture and other items.
Henderson has asthma, so she’s been trying to keep her distance, at least as much as possible. Amid a watery landscape now rife with public health threats including mold, filthy debris and sewage-filled flood remnants, authorities have advised people with respiratory issues to be particularly careful during cleanups.
The water invaded Henderson’s home on the night of Aug. 26, 24 hours after the hurricane made landfall.
“I was like, ‘Jesus, please don’t let this water keep rising,’” she recalled. “I don’t want it to touch my baby.”
Her eyes teared up when her husband came out of the house carrying a brand-new white cradle and threw it on the family’s growing garbage heap.
Nearby, a little boy wore a white mask over his nose and mouth as he rode his tricycle. On either side of the street, piles of trash towered over him.
For some who watched Texas’ ordeal from afar, new storm perils loomed. Hurricane Irma, a Category 4 storm, approached the islands of the eastern Caribbean on Monday, bringing with it the threat of battering waves, landslides and floods. Puerto Rico’s governor declared a state of emergency, and residents began battening down.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV)– Tallahassee firefighters are back at Station 7 following a temporary relocation to Station 9 last week.
Employees were forced to leave the building on Shamrock following concerns of mold. Staff are now staying in temporary housing provided by the Leon County Sheriff’s Office on site at Station 7 while crews work to remediate and clean.
The action comes after an employee brought up health concerns and mold growth at the building. Since then, at least nine employees have filed a “first report of injury or illness” with the City based on the concerns at Station 7. That is the first step in a potential workman’s compensation claim.
“We’re not going to disregard our employees. If that’s a concern, we’re going to look into it and address it” said Fire Chief Jerome Gaines.
A report done by Mihir Environics Inc. shows that the hallway outside the HVAC closet had high levels of mold spores in the air. However, the amount is not higher than the outdoor air. A conclusion reached by the report states, “higher spore counts in the hallway indicates suspect presence of mold contamination in the area above ceiling.”
Recommendations were made including investigating the HVAC system and correcting the humidity problem which may be the reason for visible mold. And, investigating the above ceiling space in the hallway and other areas for possible mold contamination.
Gaines, acknowledged the issue and said they are working to make improvements.
“You know, these stations are old stations. We live in Florida which is a very humid climate. Mold is everywhere. It’s outside,” said Gaines.
“You can just consider it’s all around you, it’s on you,” said John Hassler.
Hassler is an expert on mold and owns Indoor Environmental Management. The company provides a variety of services including
identifying and remediating mold in the home. He attributes mold growth to two things.
“It’s either an active water leak in liquid state from storm water or plumbing. Or, relative humidity. And the way to protect yourself against unwanted mold growth and amplification is to control those factors or address them immediately if they become a problem,” he said.
The City is now working to address the factors leading to the station’s issue.
“We’ve contracted with experts that have extensive knowledge in this area,” said John Powell, Environmental Services and Facilities Director for the City of Tallahassee.
Several improvements have since been made, including uncovering a fresh air intake vent, adjustments to temperature control settings and adding motion sensors to fans in the restrooms.
“The outside spore count is significantly higher than what we found inside. That doesn’t mean we can’t make improvements. Improvements that will not only benefit energy consumption, as well as the quality of the air inside the building,” said Powell.
Chief Gaines said he feels satisfied that the appropriate actions are being taken.
“We can’t address anything if we don’t know about it. And we will continue to take a proactive position in everything we do and make sure not just the citizens, but the health and safety of our employees is number one,” he said.
The City expects the work to take about two weeks. It maintains that there should be no delay in response time during that time.
Each year, there are dozens of cases of mold found in K-12 classrooms and on college campuses, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The repairs can be extensive for schools, costing anywhere between a few hundred dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Mold is usually found outdoors and in buildings, but classrooms and dormitories are particularly vulnerable because piping is rarely repaired and cleaned, and many such facilities often have older air conditioners which can be shut down for weeks or months when students are not present.
School administrators may not feel a strong inclination to immediately deal with mold-related issues on college campuses, as they may not lead to immediately detectable health problems for students, but administrators should be concerned about the damage mold issues could have on the school’s reputation with potential applicants. Social media could make the prevalence of mold issues viral instantaneously, and many students report that they utilize social media when making a decision on which college to attend. If one of the notable discoveries is that a campus has mold, it may dissuade potential students from applying to that institution.
In recent interviews, college presidents noted that social media and viral videos could often lead to the general public learning about a crisis or controversy on campus. While the incidents presidents were referring to were often more serious than mold issues, it is the case that an issue with building maintenance could entirely bypass a college’s administration before people outside campus (including potential applicants) learned about the situation. It is better for administrations to quickly handle such situations, even if the concerns are deemed relatively minor. It is a small cost to avoid potential public relations problems.