2012-12-07 / Top Stories

Looming Health Problem In Rockaway

By Howard Schwach

The demonstrators from Occupy Sandy who followed the mayor to his meeting at The Wave building last week had one major complaint – that Bloomberg had foreclosed on the idea of bringing emergency shelters to the peninsula, either in the guise of FEMA trailers or as military tent cities.

That may change, however, forced by a looming health crisis that will hit when homes inundated by bay and ocean water and the attendant mold hit the heat of homes buttoned up for the winter.

Public health experts, volunteers and residents are sounding the alarm about mold that is rapidly growing in homes that were flooded by Sandy. Mold, they say, could pose a potential health hazard for families who have nowhere else to go.

And, experts say, the problem could get much worse as colder winter weather closes in and power is restored to more homes that haven't been fully dried out.

Jack Caravanos, a professor of environmental health at the City University of New York who has been visiting homes in the Rockaways to evaluate the problem, told a citywide website that the combination of heat and moisture are ideal conditions for a mold explosion.

"If the area is not completely dried out, mold will take off," he said. "And here's what's interesting with mold — it can cause asthma …It can exacerbate asthma …Being exposed to mold can make it worse and trigger an attack."

Greater NYC for Change, a 6,000- member activist organization that sprung from the 2008 Obama campaign, has started a petition on Change.org calling on government officials to deploy temporary housing — possibly including Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers or Red Horse Squadron tents — to help people get out of their flood-damaged, moldinfested homes. The petition has over 11,000 signatures.

There are currently few housing alternatives for those whose homes were damaged in the storm — the hotel vouchers provided by the city put Rockaways residents far away from their jobs, leaving them with an untenable commute, and shelters can be difficult environments for families.

Advocates said they are increasingly frustrated by what they see as willful apathy toward the problem of mold and the lack of housing alternatives.

Retired Army Colonel John Hoffman, who has been advising a number of emergency response groups in the Rockaways, said temporary housing would alleviate a number of problems.

“We are having issues distributing hot meals and getting medical care to people. Temporary housing would fix that, it would stabilize the community while homes are being rebuilt," he said. "In a lot of cases, the mold is not going to go away overnight. People will need places to live …These requests for temporary housing have fallen on deaf ears.”

State Sen. Joseph Addabbo, whose district includes the Rockaways, said FEMA and city officials are considering a plan to lease empty apartments to house residents who are either displaced or living in unsafe conditions due to the storm.

“Thirteen thousand residents in the Rockaways are without power,” Addabbo said on Friday. “There is no question the goal is to find temporary housing.”

He said FEMA trailers "aren't ideal" and that the federal agency has been trying to balance "cost and safety." “They are finding that area hotels are booked or have tripled rates," he said. "But there are hundreds of empty apartments in the Rockaways.

In the days after the storm, St. Francis de Sales Parish, in Belle Harbor has become a refuge for storm weary residents.

In recent days, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been touting the city's Rapid Repair program, set up by his office, to provide free emergency repairs to help residential property owners affecting by the storm to restore heat, water and electricity.

NYC Rapid Repairs teams will visit any storm-damaged house that is structurally sound, provide a free assessment of what needs to be done to get basic services restored, and then do the work for free," he said in his weekly address on Nov. 25.

But the program doesn't deal with mold. “They are taking out sheetrock and other flood damaged material, but they are not in the mold removal business," Addabbo said.

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