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Months After Sandy, Mucking And Gutting

On a recent day in the Rockaways, a neighborhood in Queens, N.Y., hazmat-suited volunteers far outnumber anyone else on the streets. They are "mucking and gutting" — stripping homes to the studs to remove mold. Many residents are concerned about the health effects of mold exposure, according to community organizer Peter Corless. Mycologist Joan Bennett has been sampling fungi in homes damaged by Sandy to determine which species are present.

Transcript

IRA FLATOW, HOST:

Flora Lichtman is here with our Video Pick of the Week. Flora, you visited Queens, the neighborhoods called the Rockaways, that was really wiped out by Hurricane Sandy.

FLORA LICHTMAN, BYLINE: It was hit very hard. Yes, this is a peninsula in Queens. If you past JFK, you hit the Rockaways. And so they have a bay side and an ocean side. And if you walk on the ocean side, you know, the destruction is still quite visible. There are houses that were literally ripped in half and crumbling on the beach. The boardwalk was unzipped like a zipper. It just split in half. Just - it looks like lives were stopped, sort of, dead in their tracks.

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: You can see into people's living rooms.

FLATOW: Right. Right. Right. And, well, you found is that while - in your Video Pick of the Week, and documented terrifically, is that while people keep talking about the destruction, the physical destruction, there is insidious sort of destruction going on, which makes it impossible for them live there in those houses.

LICHTMAN: That's right. So people who were there who didn't - whose house does still exist, who have power and heat restored - so that's not everybody there - they're dealing with another kind of threat. And it's mold. This seems to be the sort of primary concern I heard from Peter Corless, who's a community organizer there. And many other people that I talked to, mold is one of the top concerns for people living there. Now, so as water came through, it left behind damp basements, some of which weren't pumped out for weeks or months. And now, people's homes need to be gutted because...

FLATOW: Totally gutted.

LICHTMAN: Totally gutted. This is the interesting thing: I talked to folks from Respond & Rebuild, Terri Bennett and Gabby Van Houten, and they - they're working on these houses, stripping them. And you have to just take out everything down to the studs.

FLATOW: Wow.

LICHTMAN: So the insulation has to go. We're not just talking about, you know, your knick-knacks.

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: Everything has to go.

FLATOW: Of course, the mold loves to eat the paper and the wallboard and all that stuff.

LICHTMAN: This is a fascinating thing. I spoke with Joan Bennett, who's a mycologist at Rutgers. And she has a sort of interesting relationship with mold post-hurricanes herself.

JOAN BENNETT: Yeah, nobody likes to lose their house. But to lose it to the life form that you've been studying all your life. My way of coping was, OK, I'm going to try to learn more about his.

LICHTMAN: So Bennett worked at Tulane and was living in New Orleans, and her house flooded and became completely molded over. And so her strategy was to actually survey what mold was there.

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: But she said, just as you stated, that mold - fungi eats a lot of stuff...

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: ..that they're great decomposers. That's what we know about them. They, you know, they take those logs in the forest and turn them down to nothing. And they are doing that in people's homes. So if you have wood floors or rugs. Cotton is a form of cellulose, so they'll brake down too. And the interesting thing she said is that a lot of people here have gypsum board with paper on the back. And that's the perfect food. Whereas in New Orleans, there is a huge mold problem, but the walls were spared for people, at least do have plaster.

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: You didn't have this much mold.

FLATOW: And now, at this cold snap, it's 10 degrees outside. The mold is still growing. But wait till the spring hits.

LICHTMAN: This is the big fear that I heard from Peter Corless and others that, you know, people are trying to get the - their stuff out now because as it warms up, and Joan Bennett suggested this too, there's going to be fungal explosion in places that haven't completely stripped out everything. So, you know, looking forward, it's just - this is a never-ending story of recovery.

FLATOW: And it's blocks and blocks and blocks of this stuff still.

LICHTMAN: Many, many blocks. I mean, most houses in front of them, I didn't walk down a single block without debris on the sidewalk.

FLATOW: Wow. That's our Video Pick of the Week. Flora Lichtman was out there in Queens, in the Rockaways. You can see, you know, you see on the news of people's furniture. But you don't get to go into the house like Flora did and see the mold that makes it impossible to live there for thousands people, and they have to rip out the whole thing and start over again. Thank you, Flora.

LICHTMAN: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: It's our Video Pick of the Week up there in our website on sciencefriday.com. I'm Ira Flatow in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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