Knowing How and Where to Begin with Hurricane Mold Remediation is Overwhelming, But Focusing on the Basics Gets the Job Done.
Because this is a blog centered around mold and environmental illness, I cannot neglect an obvious and pertinent topic any longer—the recent flooding, storms, and severe damage caused by Hurricane Florence. This topic has been on my heart and mind for sometime now, and will continue to be as Florence is only the first BIG hurricane of this season. Until now, I have felt largely helpless in doing anything for those affected from my home and insulated life in Memphis. Just the other day, though, it dawned on me that I DO have something of value to offer by way of this blog. I can draw from what I know and lend some insight into the inevitable mold aspect if the hurricane equation. More specifically, I feel I can help those dealing with the aftermath learn how to better address and mitigate fungal and bacterial growth in their homes and communities after extreme water events and flooding has occurred. In this post, I will try to walk readers through a more defined way of handling the clean-up aspect of the disaster so that such a daunting piece of reclaiming their lives may come a little easier and may seem a little less hopeless or overwhelming. Experience has taught me that if you begin this kind of task with mold eradication as a major chunk of your efforts, you will have greater success and a safer home in the end.
To accomplish this monumental task, I am going to take this time and this post to give you all I know and have learned from the best in the business (restoration, remediation, health, indoor air quality, building safety, etc.) in the way of advice, support, and direction on mold as it relates to hurricanes and flooding. I feel it important to note this distinction, because mold growth after flooding and a hurricane is an entirely different animal than what I usually write about on this blog, even though, in the end, the health repercussions of not dealing with it correctly are much the same—sickness, infection, and, in extreme cases, permanent damage to body systems and function or death. (I am sorry to have to go there, but bacterial and fungal infections for the immunocompromised, children, and the elderly can be THAT grave.)
Even if you weren’t directly affected by this recent hurricane, you may know someone else who was, have someone staying with you or friends temporarily, or may have lived through one of its predecessors and are still dealing with the outcome. Regardless, I hope you will continue to read on and will share this post with friends, family, or loved ones who may find something enlightening or helpful in what I have to share. While I have NOT participated on the front lines in the recovery effort, and am NOT a trained professional, I can offer aid from my years of efforts in the “trenches” on the mold front. I have also spent countless hours speaking with successful professionals in the remediation and environmental restoration businesses who do have “boots on the ground” and firsthand experience (some decades of it). They have given me so much insight into how and why flooding and hurricane remediations are only successful when approached from a different, triage perspective. Thus, I want to get this information onto the blog, so that it may help as many people out there that this article might reach.
Before I begin, in the spirit of being totally transparent, I must tell you that I have never lived through or directly experienced a hurricane or its aftermath. At this point in my life, I have not resided in a geographic area hit with tropical storms and/or hurricanes. I don’t pretend to know or to understand the full loss, trauma, or financial impact and insecurity of going through such a catastrophic event. I also in no way assume that what we went through with our mold nightmare is akin to what those who have suffered through a damaging hurricane have endured. In other words, I fully recognize that these experiences are not the same. But, what I do know is that the victims in both situations face similar obstacles when attempting to reclaim their homes and lives.
Some obstacles faced by both hurricane and mold sufferers having to remediate their homes include:
1.) Not knowing where to begin.
2.) Not knowing who to trust for advice or help.
3.) Not being able to find the right professional help.
4.) Spending enormous amounts of money without any guarantee that their homes have been successfully fixed.
5.) Not knowing if fixing their home or cutting losses and starting over is the best option.
I definitely do not have the answers for all of these obstacles. What I CAN help with, though, is where to begin with the remediation piece. And, since getting started is sometimes the hardest part, especially when the task seems enormous, if I can get even one person moving in the right direction, I feel like I have accomplished something good.
In what follows, I intend to give a big-picture, detailed account of best practices for hurricane/flooding situations. I will only be tackling remediation from the time after storms, damaging winds, and flooding has subsided. I know that is only a very small piece of what hurricane victims face, but the recovery of a home in this time period is where I think I can lend the most value to the discussion. Thus, the rest of this post regards strategies for demoing, remediating, restoring, and rebuilding a home after hurricane and/or flood damage—although, these action steps should be helpful to anyone experiencing water damage in their home.
(Note: If you are interested in reading an article that looks at hurricanes/mold/health impact from a macro-perspective, I encourage you to click HERE to read the latest newsletter on Sinusitis Wellness.)
I think it goes without saying that you MUST begin all remediation efforts with SAFETY.
Go to any site on the web with any information about hurricane restoration and remediation and you will find warning statements and advice about wearing proper protective gear and about not entering homes or building structures until they have been determined to be structurally sound and safe. (For mold sensitive people, being prepared with safety gear for any water event is very important.) Also, in my opinion, immediately turning off electricity and gas to the home prior to entry is a must. In addition to these cautions, both government and private agencies alike expound on the need for suiting up in the proper protective gear prior to entering any storm-damaged home or building. This is because, now that we have scientific data and studies from Hurricanes Sandy, Katrina, Irma, Harvey, etc., we KNOW that water-damaged structures will be harboring levels of mold and bacteria that are unsafe for humans and animals until they are properly cleaned and restored. We also know that water-damaged homes almost always yield mycotoxin-producing molds like aspergillus and stachybotrus.
All people entering homes are advised to wear N-95 respirator masks or higher—I actually recommend ½ and full-face respirator masks for doing any actual work in a home. Also advised are gloves, googles, and disposable Tyvek suits. These supplies are very inexpensive and available at local hardware stores like Home Depot or online. Ideally your entire outfit should be removed and disposed of upon leaving the home and prior to entering any clean or safe spaces to prevent cross-contamination and the spread of bacteria and mold. The dangers of bacterial and fungal infection are very real and very well documented at this point post-hurricane. In fact, one of the many well-known deaths after Hurricane Sandy, was that of an off-duty firefighter who stood in floodwaters unprotected for a few hours directing traffic. He later died of a bacterial infection acquired from his exposure to the contaminated water. Thus, these situations are extremely serious and extremely dangerous from an exposure perspective and much be treated with the utmost caution, regardless of how serious it appears or the damage seems from a visual perspective.
You have nothing to lose by going overboard with protective gear, whereas thinking you will be fine, not wearing protective gear and then inhaling mold spores or touching bacterially contaminated items from floodwater could set a downward health spiral into motion from which you may never fully recover. Worth noting is the fact that most fungi and microbes cannot be seen, even when present in very high concentrations. Once visible or fragrant (aka musty or putrid smells), these microscopic invaders are at levels where only a professional should be involved with removal. I recognize that these people may be in short supply during these difficult times, though.
Now that I have touched on safety, this is where I say that in situations where homes and buildings have sat flooded and wet for more than 48 hours, it is my opinion that you shouldn’t try to remediate yourself. I know not everyone has the luxury of hiring professionals, but I want to put that out there. These are situations where professional help is needed and warranted. At the very least, I would advise anyone returning to a damaged home to have a professional evaluate the structure for soundness and stability BEFORE you go inside and start any work. You can take pictures and consult someone in a different city for triage purposes.
If there are sagging ceilings, exposed electrical wires, roof vulnerability, etc., you could be badly injured if you enter. Often, in areas that have the worst damage, this is required before anyone is allowed to re-enter. But, in areas where not everyone was hit, it is wise to get someone to ok the home for entry before you begin any other efforts. Also, if you were renting, and the home was completed flooded, my advice would be to cut your losses and find a new home that did not suffer such damage. It is my experience and opinion that in the long run, the long-term health and human costs of living in a water-damaged space are much more than what you lose from walking away.
During disasters, many remediation and restoration companies mobilize to the areas affected, so that they may be of service and capitalize on the many people who need their help. Make sure to vet and check certifications and credentials first. Some states even relax laws stating who can and cannot do remediation work. For example, in Florida, normally the law requires mold remediators to be properly licensed. But, after the recent hurricane, the law was temporarily relaxed to allow general contractors to also do remediation work. Interestingly, though, remediators were STILL not allowed to do ANY rebuilding, but could only stick to remediation efforts. I think that is very telling about how government agencies regard the dangers of indoor mold. That’s a rabbit hole, though, so I’ll stop here. Bottom line, do not be afraid to get the help that you need, and to ask questions and to see certifications before signing on with any company, especially if you have flood insurance or are in an area receiving compensation or financial assistance from FEMA. Going to FEMA’s website to see how to reach out for help and how to qualify and/or find help is a great idea. There are step-by-step guides and some very useful information on safety and hurricane clean-up. I don’t agree with them on all points, but it is a place to start.
Also, and unfortunately, this needs to be stated, don’t wait for the insurance company to begin reclaiming your home. The insurance process is a frustrating one that doesn’t always come through– that’s if you even have hurricane/flood insurance. Most insurance companies have caveats and exceptions in place to prevent you from recovering anything unless you bought a separate policy for hurricanes/floods. Nevertheless, you cannot afford to wait to find out what they will and will not cover or pay for. Mold takes hold in 24-48 hours once water has been introduced to building materials. The sooner you can get drying, cleaning, demo, and ventilation efforts started, the better the prognosis for success. Document, take photos, take video, and use moisture mapping or have the professionals do this for you methodically as they go. Every single professional I spoke to for this post said that the swifter and more aggressive the remediation tactics in the beginning, the better the outcome in the end.
Now to address the most obvious remediation challenge of a hurricane—the floodwater.
The initial challenge is to temporarily let go of fears of mold to recognize that the focus of hurricane remediation efforts needs to be directed at pathogens and other contaminates present in the floodwaters FIRST. For most other remediation efforts, the main focus is to stop the water intrusion and to remove or dry everything out as quickly as possible. Well, hurricanes are a little different, because the water itself (contaminated floodwater) is the major problem, especially for mold sensitive and immunocompromised people. According to OSHA’s website,
“Floodwater often contains infectious organisms, including intestinal bacteria such as E. coli, Salmonella, and Shigella; Hepatitis A Virus; and agents of typhoid, paratyphoid and tetanus. Floodwaters also may be contaminated by agricultural or industrial chemicals or by hazardous agents present at flooded hazardous waste sites. Pools of standing or stagnant water become breeding grounds for mosquitoes, increasing the risk of encephalitis, West Nile Virus or other mosquito-borne diseases.”
In other words, and I bet you never thought you’d see this written on my blog, when you begin the remediation process in a hurricane-damaged home, the fungal component is actually your secondary concern. Deep cleaning must come at the forefront of the protocol, because bacterial contaminants are the immediate danger. The drying, treating, vacuuming, air scrubbing, wiping, fogging methods of mold remediation do not have positive results is a hurricane situation unless the home is thoroughly cleaned and disinfected from floodwaters. I learned this valuable piece of information myself when I was preparing for this post. In all studies done on remediated homes in New Orleans, post Katrina, the homes with the best outcomes and that tested safe for habitation post remediation were the ones that were cleaned and sanitized PRIOR to mold-specific remediation efforts.
Now that you understand why my general hurricane remediation strategy is going to look quite different from other posts on this blog, I think I can now present this list. In it, I have outlined strategy in order of importance as I understand it. Remember, I can only offer advice on what your strategy should include to have a higher probability of success. I am not offering a PLAN. Each person’s situation is so different and every house endures different degrees of damage, so I am unable to cover everything. That is why I advise using a professional if at all possible. I hope you will bear with me, though, and see this list as more of a guide and general direction, so that you can better organize and concentrate your efforts on the aspects that affect your home.
Post-Hurricane Remediation Strategies Should Include:
- Aggressive drying techniques – The idea is to get everything as dry as possible as quickly as possible. Professionals use dehumidifiers, wet vacuums, box fans, opening of windows, cabinets, doors, heaters, pressurized drying systems, etc. Whatever you can do to move the air and to introduce ventilation, the better from a drying standpoint. This is also why you NEED to wear a respirator mask. Fungal and bacterial spores and fragments are now being disturbed and can be inhaled. This is dangerous and caution must be taken at every step.
- Opening affected areas (anything wet) and removal of wet building materials and upholstered/soft furnishings – Cut out, or pull base moldings away from walls and floors, drill holes to facilitate air movement into wall and ceiling cavities. Remove and dispose of all wet drywall, insulation, particle board, non-stone or tile flooring (unfortunately wood flooring that is saturated does not have a good prognosis), carpet, etc. If it was saturated by flood water, it should be removed and disposed of, if possible. This includes any and all clothing, furnishings, etc. touched by floodwaters. In these situations, it is not safe or advisable to save any of these items.
(Note: It may be difficult to not try to save building materials. You don’t have to rebuild everything tomorrow, though. It always helped me to think about remediation as a process, rather than an event. First and foremost, you need to get all of the drying, demo, cleaning and treatments done. Then, the rebuilding can take time and be done as you can afford it. Thinking in terms of having the goal be a clean, safe place to live will help you to prioritize. Things can be bare bones for as long as you need. It is not ideal, but is practical and easier on you financially.)
- Removal of contaminates with pressurized washing and cleaning techniques – This is where you will want to employ wet, pressure washing techniques to remove any dirt, silt, debris, residue from floodwater. A degreasing, antibacterial detergent is what most professionals recommend. This step is incredibly important, because it is the only way to properly remove bacteria from building materials. Professionals also told me that homeowners should not be so concerned with the reintroduction of water at this point. Everything should be stripped down and opened up to the point where pressurized cleaning with dry quickly. This type of proactive cleaning has also been shown to decrease future chances of mold growth, because it successfully removes so much organic material. Pressurized cleaning will remove current mold growth. Scrubbing in some cases may be required if mold growth and discoloration are already present. Cleaning should be done until no visible dirt or mold is present. Anyplace touched by floodwater must be cleaned and disinfected. (Note: Don’t use bleach!!! Bleach is a poor cleaner and antifungal and does not penetrate porous materials—See my post on bleach HERE—and is destructive to building materials.)
- Use of negative pressure and air scrubbers to aggressively remove indoor contaminates – This one doesn’t require too much explanation. You want to be cleaning the air as much as humanly possible in any areas affected by water damage.
- Use of antifungals to eliminate and prevent mold growth – This should occur in a treatment phase after drying, demo, and cleaning are completed. The best and most penetrating way I have found is to have the entire indoor space thoroughly fogged with an effective, but not toxic treatment like EC3 Mold Solution Concentrate.
This includes wall and ceiling cavities. It is advisable to fog and treat every single space and room in a hurricane-damaged home, even rooms where the waters did not reach. This is a proactive technique and will help to eliminate the spread of mold spores throughout the home. I also think it is important to do this considering the amount of humidity that enters a home after a hurricane. When power is out, all of the moisture from the rains and groundwater is lingering.
- Use of industrial HEPA vacuums – In a hurricane situation, this should come in stages. Vacuuming should occur after any demo. You will have to vacuum everything, including inside wall, floor, and ceiling cavities. The more you can remove dust or the dust build-up on organic material, the better you can thwart mold growth. Vacuuming should also be employed in areas of the home and on furnishings not touched by floodwater. Once these items and areas are fogged, they should be thoroughly vacuumed. Do not use non-HEPA wet dry vacuums. Non-HEPA vacuums will redistribute the contaminants into the air and make things worse.
- Treatment of clothing and textiles – Any clothing or textiles that encountered floodwater should be disposed of. Do not attempt clean it as you will contaminate your washing machine. Any clothing or textiles that remained in your home, but was not directly affected should be cleaned and treated with a mild detergent and an EC3 Laundry Additive soak. For the details on this method, HERE is my post. Dry clean only items, large bedding, drapes, etc., can fogged with EC3 Mold Solution and then taken for professional wet cleaning.
I know that list may seem brief and simplified, but the goal is not to confuse or overwhelm. I find that having a clear list of goals and strategies focuses efforts and produces forward motion. I also know that there is a much longer list of things that I am not addressing. But, my goal wasn’t to cover everything, but to cover enough, so that someone might read this post, feel empowered, and finally know where to begin, because now they also know HOW to begin.