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Mold, a Major Residue of Katrina


Along the Mississippi coast, floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina have drained away, but they've left behind a greenish-black mold that's growing in people's homes, in businesses and in public buildings. The Centers for Disease Control says exposure to mold can lead to respiratory and skin problems. However, removing it is often a big job, as NPR's Adam Hochberg discovered, in Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi.

ADAM HOCHBERG reporting:

It was just four years ago that Dovey Mays(ph) built a custom house a few blocks from the Bay Saint Louis waterfront, a quaint cottage where she planned to spend the rest of her life. Now she hesitates even to go inside.

(Soundbite of door)

Ms. DOVEY MAYS (Home Owner, Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi): Hot in here, baby.

HOCHBERG: Mays' house is now empty except for 10 dehumidifiers and air blowers, noisy machines that run constantly, trying to eliminate the moisture that's permeated almost every interior surface. At the height of the hurricane, about three feet of muddy water filled this house. And though the flooding eventually receded, the Sheetrock stayed so damp and the air so clammy that mold began to sprout and thrive.

Ms. MAYS: It was climbing up the walls. I had it all over the floors. I had to throw away all my furniture.

HOCHBERG: You could smell it.

Ms. MAYS: Oh, this house stunk so badly, I had to wear one of those masks, but you can't breathe in. Yeah. You could throw up in here. It was awful.

Mr. JEFF ELDRIDGE (Owner, SERVPRO): I just need a signature here and then answer those questions and any comments at the bottom.

Ms. MAYS: Oh, OK.

HOCHBERG: Mays, a 73-year-old nurse anesthetist, recently signed a contract with a disaster recovery company called SERVPRO. For $13,000, they ripped out the Sheetrock, sprayed a chemical mold killer and installed the machines that now are working to dry the studs, floorboards and joists.

Mr. ELDRIDGE: This is a high-velocity air mover. It's stirring the air.

HOCHBERG: Jeff Eldridge owns the SERVPRO franchise that's working in Mays' house and about 20 other homes nearby.

Mr. ELDRIDGE: Basically what we've got down here is houses locked up with no air conditioner, muggy, humid, causing mold. It's already been flooded, and it's been wet, so that's going to be bad.

HOCHBERG: In areas affected by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, health officials say homeowners must act quickly to identify and clean up mold. The longer it's allowed to grow and the longer a house stays damp, the bigger the problem can become. In homes that are vacant for a long time, Eldridge says he's found what he calls `moldcicles' hanging six inches off the walls. Even exposure to mild infestations can lead to medical problems. Nancy Freeman is an extension agent with Mississippi State University.

Ms. NANCY FREEMAN (Extension Agent, Mississippi State University): The health danger really has to deal with respiratory issues, particularly for those that are in high-risk groups: very young children and infants, people who are already immunocompromised or individuals that are elderly that may be at risk for contracting things like pneumonia or bronchitis and those kinds of things.

HOCHBERG: In coastal Mississippi, Freeman says she's seeing a lot of cases of so-called black mold, thick spores that can resemble tea or black paint. But she says mold also can be hidden inside a building's walls. She's loaning homeowners portable meters they can use to detect unseen moisture.

Ms. FREEMAN: It's about the size of a cellular phone, and all you do is press a power button, which comes on...

(Soundbite of beeping)

Ms. FREEMAN: ...and it sets itself. It's giving me a reading of 144 on it, so I have some moisture in the wall but not a lot, which is pretty common.

HOCHBERG: Mississippi health and environmental officials don't know how many buildings are affected by storm-related mold. They say no state agency has the resources to monitor the situation. Likewise, there's little regulation here of mold cleanup companies, so Freeman says homeowners must be wary of dealing with unscrupulous firms. She says that as the mold problem has grown, so too has the number of fly-by-night contractors trying to prey upon people's fears. Adam Hochberg, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adam Hochberg
Based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Adam Hochberg reports on a broad range of issues in the Southeast. Since he joined NPR in 1995, Hochberg has traveled the region extensively, reporting on its changing economy, demographics, culture and politics. He also currently focuses on transportation. Hochberg covered the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, followed candidates in three Presidential elections and reported on more than a dozen hurricanes.

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