Last week Mayor Bloomberg touted his vision for a safer, sustainable, more resilient, post-Sandy New York, but in many areas affected by the storm, the real clean-up is just beginning. On Thursday photographer Tod Seelie followed a team of volunteers tackling one of the biggest tasks to make neighborhoods like the Rockaways inhabitable again: gutting houses to clear out the mold. "Our goal was to get all the drywall and everything else out so that only the basic structure of the house is left," one of the volunteers, Adam Connaker, said. "Once everything is out, you let the house dry out, which kills the mold. If you don't act fast enough, the mold takes over and you lose the house."
As of last week, 12,000 people in the New York City area were living in unheated homes as the result of Hurricane Sandy. Mold exposure can lead to asthma and respiratory issues, and living in a mold-riddled home increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Connaker, a grad student studying global affairs who has helped clear out seven homes in the Rockaways and traveled to the Philippines last year to help make typhoon-ravaged homes inhabitable, says the house he and other volunteers cleared on Thursday suffered flooding of around four and a half feet. "You could definitely smell the mold when you pulled the wall back." Angelica Pray, a volunteer from Portland, Oregon, said, "The insulation was just pure mold. As soon as we got to those parts we'd all work to clear it out. It was pretty terrible in a lot of places."
After moldy material is cleaned out, surfaces must be scrubbed with bleach to prevent it from blooming again.*
The volunteers gathered at Occupy Sandy's main hub at the Church of St. Luke & St. Matthew on Washington Avenue, and worked in conjunction with Respond and Rebuild, an Occupy off-shoot. Both organizations require that homeowners assist in the cleanup. If they are unable to assist, they must at least be present. "They were great," Pray said of the older couple whose house she worked on. "The woman brought us delicious hot chocolate and the man was really funny, cracking jokes and stuff like that."
Pray, a social worker who had never volunteered in disaster relief operations before, said she traveled to New York because she was struck with "how a tropical storm, how water can totally change people's lives for the worst" and wanted to help. "It's hard to say if I made a difference. But everyone I worked with knew what they were doing, and to know those people are out there holding it down—they are definitely making a difference."
Connaker says the trick is to focus on the task at hand, lest you get swallowed up in the immensity of the damage done. "Other organizations, Rubicon, All Hands Volunteers, we're all doing the exact same thing: gutting these houses so they can dry out a week and be rebuilt back up. And [Occupy and R&R] alone have helped over 100 houses.
But then you walk around out there and realize that every single house in the Rockaways needs help," Connaker says. "100 or 150 houses is a fantastic thing. But we're just nowhere near being close to finishing the task in the Rockaways."
* UPDATE: "We've been trying to dispel this myth for weeks. Bleach is not sufficient for use on wood for killing mold," Terri Bennett, a worker for Respond and Rebuild tells us. "Bleach will kill the bloom outside but will re-saturate the wood and the mold inside will continue to grow." Bennett says that a combination of chemicals and "industrial grade appliances" will be needed to remove the mold from many damaged homes in the Rockaways.