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Special Section Archives The Altamont Enterprise, September 22, 2011

After the floodwaters subside, mold can move in and make a home unlivable

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

Molds — microscopic organisms — though small, are powerful.

They shut down the Altamont library and they’ve wreaked havoc for scores of homeowners in the wake of flooding from Tropical Storm Irene. When the waters recede, it often seems like the worst is over, but then fungi can proliferate, causing new problems.

A week after the library, housed in a basement, had pumped out 10 inches of flood water and run fans and a dehumidifier to dry the place out — “We thought we were OK,” said the library’s director, Judith Wines — mold was discovered on the walls behind the bookshelves.

“It was black and moist…of finger-paint quality,” said Wines. “It was disgusting.”

Repairs would have been costly since drywall within four feet of the mold would have had to be removed and new Sheetrock installed, said Wines; the board of trustees chose, instead, to move the library. (See related story.)

Some homeowners, though, like Robert Stempel, are stuck with the problem.

Stempel grew up in East Berne and, since 1967, has lived in a one-story house — 48 by 26 1/2 feet — near the farmhouse where he was raised. He’s retired now but had worked as a carpenter, plumber, and electrician.

He and his wife, Audra, were trapped in their Long Road home on Aug. 28, the day Irene hit. Mr. Stempel set out to drive his wife to her job at the Hannaford market in Voorheesville but turned back as four or five feet of water rushed across the road. “Trees and boulders were rolling by; it was quite a mess,” he said. “It was over the tires of the truck.”

Although his cellar had never been damp before, it filled with four feet of water. At the same time, torrential rain pounded on the roof, causing damage. “There were hailstones the size of golf balls,” he said, “and the rain was so heavy, I couldn’t see my mailbox, which is 10 feet from the house.”

Stempel, who is in his 60s, said, “I’ve lived here all my life and never seen anything like it.”

When the rain stopped and the water receded, it seemed like the worst should be over.

But, said Stempel, “It subsided and we had mold. Boy, does it stink. It’s on all of our clothes, all of my books, everything. We had all our windows open and fans going. You really can’t kill it.”

A worker from the Federal Emergency Management Agency visited the Stempels’ house and made a thorough inspection, Stempel said. He was told to go to his insurance company first to see what would be covered. The Stempels had no flood insurance. “I had back-up sewage coverage,” said Stempel.

He learned he would get $5,000 from his insurance company, which was discouraging since replacing his destroyed furnace alone would cost $4,500, he said. The ruined water pump and stove each cost $900 he said, and the hot-water tank would cost $1,800 to replace.

“Audra filled out the paperwork for FEMA and now we’re waiting,” Stempel said on Tuesday. Individual households in Albany County, like the Stempels’, are eligible for grants up to $30,000 from FEMA, and for low-interest loans beyond that.

“My whole house has to be gutted — the ceiling, the walls, everything down to the studs,” Stempel said, since the mold is so pervasive. Once the studs are exposed, he plans to wash them down with a combination of baking soda and Clorox.

Audra Stempel, to help others suffering from mold contamination, wrote out for The Enterprise a detailed list of the steps she has been following to try to clean the mold in her home.

She uses a large plastic sprayer filled with water and Clorox to spray moldy areas and then dries the area with a fan and a leaf blower. She recommends using a paste of baking soda and water to rub on the walls to reduce the mold smell, and she sprinkles the baking soda in the air ducts as well. Finally, she vacuums floors and carpets once the baking soda has soaked in.

Describing the mold, Robert Stempel said, “It’s green till you spray it, then it goes off like a puff of smoke. You wipe it and it turns black.” He has experimented with using just Clorox, which he believes makes it worse, unless it is paired with baking soda. (See related story on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control on dealing with mold.)

In the meantime, as the Stempels await word from FEMA, they have been forced to move out of their house.  Stempel coughs frequently as he talks and said that the mold has made his breathing difficult. “The mold can really attack your lungs,” he said. His wife, he said, suffers from asthma and the mold has affected her breathing, too. He can’t afford to see a doctor, Stempel said, as he has no health insurance.

The couple is now living — both cooking and sleeping — in their garage, which they heat with a wood-burning stove. “We’ve got no place to go,” said Stempel. They make trips into the house only to use the bathroom or to make progress with cleaning up.

“We’re sleeping in the garage by her car,” said Stempel. The first night out of their bedroom, they slept in a waterlogged bed that disintegrated, he said. They are now sleeping on another bed.

They’ve tried washing and bleaching their clothes but decided they’ll have to throw them out. “They still smell like mold,” said Stempel.

Although Stempel has called a number of contractors, he has yet to get an idea of what the costs would be to make his house livable. “I really don’t know,” he said. “We’ve got nothing. We live from check to check, and taxes are due.”

Despite their own problems, the Stempels have been cleaning up some furniture to donate to Schoharie residents who lost everything. “A lot of people are worse off than us,” said Stempel.

“As soon as the cold weather comes,” he concluded, “we have to get out of here.”

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