Nine months after Hurricane Sandy, shore homeowners flooded during the storm are still dealing with the bumper crop of mold that has sprung up in the hurricane's wake.
That means busy summer days for people in the business of removing it, and unwelcome surprises for homeowners who didn't move quickly to dry out their walls and flooring.
"A lot of calls are from people who have done very little or nothing at all," said David Koerner, of Toms River-based remediation company NewJerseyMold.com, which serves the storm-ravaged towns of Little Egg Harbor and Stafford Township. "Most are second-home owners"
And while the calls keep coming for expensive remediation, recovery workers worry that people who can't afford the repairs are not asking for help that is available.
Some of the calls to remediation businesses are coming from people who just recently began addressing flooding-related damage. Other calls are coming from residents who treated for mold right after the storm, but did not fully dry out their house.
"I've seen people where they had someone come in, and I don't know what they sprayed," Koerner said. "Whatever they applied might have killed the mold for a week."
Mold infestations can cause major health issues, particularly for those with existing allergy and respiratory issues, according to the New Jersey Department of Health, which has sent out advisories for months on how homeowners can address issues.
However, area health departments, including Atlantic County, and hospitals, including AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center and Southern Ocean Medical Center in Stafford, have not reported any increase in patients seeking help.
Medical centers were bracing for an increase of patients, but that did not happen - something Dr. Shikhar Soni, chairman of the Department of Medicine at Southern Ocean Medical Center, said he thought was because people ultimately moved out of contaminated houses.
"I've had only a few cases of mold-related shortness of breath, and the way we treat it as we would treat asthma," he said.
Mold can destroy the wood and other materials houses are made from if the infestation is never treated.
Ventnor City mayor Mike Bagnell said he worries about some houses where it's clear no repairs or mold treatments have been made since Sandy.
"It's a concern because these places are going to wind up having to be demolished," Bagnell said. "They're not going to be able to be renovated."
Starting in June, Frank LaMorte said, his company, Brigantine-based Remediation Pros, began receiving significantly more calls than usual for the areas where Sandy caused flooding. Many of the homeowners had removed some of the flood-damaged materials in the house as well as sprayed chemicals for mold, he said. "But the client didn't tear everything out."
If homeowners did not fully dry out materials, such as drywall, wood, flooring and insulation, they are at risk of the mold returning, particularly in the warm summer months.
Others are calling after noting a stench coming from the crawlspace, LaMorte said. And when he or his co-workers show up, they find the crawlspace either wasn't dried out properly or, "it was just plain never dried out."
Educating homeowners about the hazards of mold, as well as how to fix the problems after Sandy, has been the topic of several workshops held along the Jersey Shore, including two coming up in Lacey and Little Egg Harbor townships. Since about May, more than 300 homeowners - as well as more than 500 building and health officials - have participated, said Mitchel Rosen, a director at Rutgers University's School of Public Health.
Some people try to deal with the mold themselves. But the cleanup is often too much for the homeowner to handle alone, Rosen said.
"We also give them some decision logic. Should I do it myself or should I find a contractor, and if I decide to get a contractor, what are some things I should be looking for."
Koerner said his business is about double what it was this time last year, something he attributes to Sandy's aftermath. The majority of calls to his company, particularly in Long Beach Island, Little Egg Harbor and Manahawkin, Stafford Township, are coming from second-home owners who did not think they had a problem after the storm.
Some homeowners don't want to admit they have a mold problem, either because they are afraid it will affect their property's value or are unwilling to pay the cost of full remediation, which can cost thousands of dollars with little insurance help, LaMorte said.
Aid workers know there are houses out there where people are living with potentially severe mold infestations, said Henry Wise, chairman of the Atlantic County Long Term Recovery Group. The group, which is helping residents who still need help recovering from the storm, has caseworkers visiting storm-damaged houses.
Wise said caseworkers have been in homes that have the distinctive musty stench of black mold, with homeowners looking the worker in the eyes and saying they have no problem. "For some reason they seem to be nervous (about asking for help)," Wise said.
Part of the concern about admitting the problem may be the fear that homeowners may have no place to live while remediation takes place, Wise said.
"They're afraid we're going to rip their houses all out and they're going to be left with no place to live. They'd rather be living in a place in the condition it's in than having no roof over their head."
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