By Gavin Stern
FAR ROCKAWAY, N.Y.-Hammers pound on water-stained drywall. Mold-encased flooring is pried up. A toxic haze hangs over bedrooms now separated only by raw wooden beams. The dirty air swirls around young volunteers as they pant through respirator masks and tear apart what was once a home.
This is post-Sandy cleanup – volunteer crews, gutting out homes to save them from mold.
“It’s not glamorous work, but construction never is,” said Howard Singer, 46, who owns the home at 432 Beach 47th St. in Far Rockaway. “Hopefully, this is going to allow the house to air out.”
Sandy’s floodwaters reached halfway up the front door.
“Everything below that has to be ripped out,” said Alexey Abramov, a medical student who organized a volunteer group consisting of students from New York Medical College and members of the Eastchester Volunteer Ambulance Corps.
Abramov’s team received their assignment and equipment from Respond and Rebuild, which coordinates a volunteer effort out of Pilgrim Church of Arverne, itself hollowed out by the storm. The pews are pushed aside to make room for shovels, boots, and boxes filled with gloves, hard hats, goggles and respirators – all donated from the Occupy Sandy movement.
“Mold levels are very high,” said Charlie Paget-Seekins, 28, from Booneville, Calif., a crew coordinator for Respond and Rebuild. “We are exposed and worse than that there are a lot of homeowners that are living in homes that have serious mold problems.”
Paget-Seekins said exposure is a sacrifice that volunteers such as he are aware of, but with proper use of personal protective equipment – such as respirators – he said health issues can be kept to a minimum.
Yet, the equipment that Abramov’s team was issued, a standard N95 respirator, is only suitable to clean up a, “small mold area, less than roughly three feet by three feet,” according to an instruction pamphlet by 3M that is included with its respirator masks.
With the levels of mold seen in Sandy-struck homes – the floors are caked with it – a paper mask may not be enough, said Evonne Kaplan-Liss, a physician and professor of preventive medicine at Stony Brook University.
“Volunteers are using N95 respirators, the most basic. They should be used only when there’s minimal mold,” Kaplan-Liss said.
While exposure to large amount of mold should not be life-threatening, Kaplan-Liss said, it is possible to pick up a mold lung infection, which would require treatment by a specialist.
Matt Engel, a coordinator for Respond and Rebuild, said volunteers are issued the best equipment available based on donations, and that the paper masks are sufficient for the short-term crews.
“For demolition crews, with people going out once or twice, we’re told the N95 is safe. People on a long-term basis, they’re using a more advanced P100 half-face respirator with Tyvek suits,” said Engel, 30, from Westfield, Mass. “As we get more of those in, we’re going to transition to those.”
Engel said Respond and Rebuild would benefit from donations of the protective equipment. The more-extensive P100 respirators cost about $35 each, while that same amount can buy boxes upon boxes of N95 masks.
Paget-Seekins said he sometimes feels congested after working in Far Rockaway. Engel, a smoker, said he experiences some “chest stuff.”
“Volunteers who are sensitive to molds may experience itchy eyes, skin irritation and sneezing,” Kaplan-Liss said, with people who smoke, have asthma or other lung conditions being especially susceptible.
Though the volunteer effort is not without sacrifice, the work is worth thousands of dollars to the victims. Many of those affected were uninsured or underinsured for floods. Singer’s insurance, which he paid into for years, wouldn’t cover damage from rising water.
“They’ve been waiting their whole lives to say there’s no insurance,” Singer said.
Though gutting homes of flooring and drywall is an extensive, painful process, it is necessary to save the home.
“If people just rebuild without removing the mold first, it’s going to become a public health epidemic,” Paget-Seekins said. “Homes are going to become structurally unsound,”
Back at Pilgrim Church of Arverne, new groups of volunteers arrive, load up on gear, and head out for the day, despite the health risk.
“We’ve seen the poor response from government agencies and it seemed like the only people who were actually here and knew what was happening was Occupy Sandy,” said Dioclis Hernandez, 37, from Brooklyn. “They went door to door to find out what people actually needed instead of just dropping off crap and walking away.”
Pastor Dennis Loncke, who has been working with Respond and Rebuild out of the Sandy-devastated Pilgrim Church of Arverne building, has not lost his optimism.
“What Sandy has done is brought us a place not to focus so much on the past, but to focus on going forward – what do we do from here,” Loncke said. “In the midst of all that is going on, we’re looking for the good that God is doing. It is a challenging time.”