By Qingqing Chen
On a chilly Saturday afternoon in April, Deidre McGrath and her husband, Scott, went door to door checking housing conditions on Midland Avenue, on Staten Island. As they approached a vacant house, they noticed a strong, musty smell.
“It’s mold,” said Scott McGrath, covering his mouth. The smell made him sneeze. “We’ve been trying to prove to the city that this is a health hazard, although they don’t really say it is.”
Since Hurricane Sandy, abandoned houses have become a common sight on Staten Island. These houses, which were deluged with seawater and debris, have not been repaired. Eighteen months after Sandy, they are becoming hotbeds of mold.
The McGraths run a nonprofit organization called Beacon of Hope, which they started in February 2013 to rebuild the hardest-hit neighborhoods of Staten Island. When they first started, they spent more than 30 hours a week visiting vacant houses, checking their mold status and looking for ways to clean them up. Deidre returned to her full-time job at Con Edison in February, so the McGraths now spend three hours a week working on abandoned buildings.
When Sandy hit New York City, 650,000 houses across the city were damaged or destroyed. The flood surge overwhelmed the East and South shores of Staten Island, covering more than 16 percent of the island’s residential areas, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Many residents were forced to leave their homes.
Banks have foreclosed on many properties, as homeowners couldn’t pay mortgages after the storm. Others couldn’t afford repair work, which often costs $80,000 to $120,000 at minimum, Deirdre says. In addition, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would not fully cover residents whose mortgage packages included insurance. As a result, many Staten Islanders left.
On Jan. 31, 2013, then-Mayor Bloomberg proposed a $15 million mold remediation program, in partnership with the American Red Cross and the Robin Hood Foundation, to treat 2,000 Sandy-affected homes throughout New York City.
Last August, Rep. Michael Grimm (R) said his office had a list of 60 Sandy-damaged houses that needed to have mold remediation or be demolished. Eighteen months later, many still stand empty. Deidre says that 54 of the homes they have inspected are infested with mold.
Indoor exposure to mold can cause asthma symptoms, hypersensitivity pneumonitis, and coughing and wheezing in otherwise healthy people.
“If there’s one building next to another or there’s a very moldy building that people walk past all the time, they can definitely get sick,” said Adrienne Sprouse, medical director of Manhattan Health Consultants. She specializes in physical and mental illness caused by environmental and chemical exposure.
Hurricane Sandy coincided with the expected seasonal increase in respiratory viral infections, which exacerbate asthma and other chronic respiratory conditions, according to the city Department of Health. Some people were exposed to irritants, including dust produced from home repairs, cleanup and debris removal, mold growth caused by wet and damaged buildings materials. Still, the Health Department said it has no evidence to suggest that mold in an abandoned home causes a health risk to neighbors.
Those living near the abandoned houses are not convinced.
“I’ve been sick since Sandy,” said Liam Shea, a Staten Islander living a few blocks away from Midland Avenue, one of the areas most affected by the storm.
He said his 17-year-old nephew had black mold in his lungs seven months after Sandy. “He got that just from being in the neighborhood itself,” Shea added.
“He coughed, had headaches and trouble breathing,” Shea says. After visiting a hospital, they found the problem was a low-level mold infection.
After medical treatment, his nephew got better. Shea is even more concerned about older people and children living nearby, who are more vulnerable.
“At one point, everybody was sick,” Shea said, referring to the time when many neighbors and residents were cleaning up damaged properties just after the storm.
The house next door to his was sealed off with concrete. Despite the cobweb-shaped green and black mold staining a window near the roof, Wells Fargo put out a sign advertising the property.
In the bathroom of another abandoned house, several blocks away, a shrunken roll of toilet paper still hangs beside a washstand covered with dust. The floor is covered with sand that was carried into the house by seawater.
The McGraths’ main focus now is revisiting abandoned properties to see if their ownership and interior conditions have changed since October, while making a new list of mold-affected homes.
“It’s really hard to follow the changing of ownership,” Deirdre McGrath said, adding that some foreclosed properties had been untouched since their last visit.
Working with volunteer groups, Beacon of Hope usually takes two days to clean one house. A dozen workers remove all the furniture and debris before tearing down all the walls and spraying mold killer throughout the building. They have cleaned at least four houses this way, according to Deidre.
“You do at times lose hope and faith that things will change, and you never know if you’ll win this battle or not,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean you give up the fight.”
Qingqing Chen is a student at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and freelance writer. Follow her on twitter.