Respond & Rebuild: Volunteers Tackle Mold in the Rockaways | Bedford Hills Real Estate

Hurricane Sandy left behind a full range of lasting and miserable effects. For some New York neighborhoods, one Sandy’s toughest legacies is mold. Nasty, smelly, irritating, and persistent, the forest of mold now growing in the basement apartments of the Rockaways is a discouraging and pernicious problem.

A grassroots volunteer group called Respond & Rebuild has made mold its top priority, and they’re attacking it with a basic arsenal: wire brushes, detergent, and elbow grease. Coastal Connection caught up with organizer Terri Bennett by phone in February. Bennett says there are thousands of homes in the affected boroughs of New York that have serious mold infestations. And she says homeowners are often at a loss about how to deal with the problem.

“We are an organization that uses volunteer labor to do various things in the recovery process,” Bennett explained. “In the beginning that meant we were shoveling out homes, cleaning debris, and gutting homes. And now we are really focused on mold remediation because it’s something that most people’s insurance doesn’t cover and it’s something that contractors can charge a lot of money for. So we provide mold remediation for people who can’t afford it, so that they rebuild safely and don’t just put up sheet rock over untreated wood that’s been saturated.”

Homeowners were surprised by the severity of the mold problem, says Bennett. “We started clearing out homes and gutting them, and we started talking to people about what to expect in terms of mold. And they were not prepared for what they were going to have to do. I mean, we were in a lot of homes where we came in and said ‘Hey, do you guys need some help cleaning out?’ and we wound up hugging homeowners who were in tears, because they didn’t understand that cleaning out after a hurricane meant gutting their first floor.”

“We had to do a lot of talking with people to convince them that we needed to take out all the sheet rock two feet above the waterline,” Bennett says. “But people who did not have their homes gutted right away, once things were gutted — you know, it stayed moist here for a long time and in the worst homes that we’ve seen, we walk in and it looks like cotton candy growing off the wall.”

The group’s methods are simple, but effective. It starts with drying out the houses: “If the house is already gutted,” says Bennett, “we come in and do some moisture readings to see how dry the house is. And we bring in some large industrial dehumidifiers, and heaters if people don’t have heat. We dry out until the wood is at 12% moisture content. For some people that takes three days. For places that are wetter, it can take seven days.” A rotating crew checks on the houses each day to monitor progress.

Next comes cleaning. “The actual remediation for the size houses that we are normally doing takes about three days,” says Bennett. “We use wire brushes and detergent. We brush down every bit of the structural wood that has to stay in the house. And we wipe everything down with detergent.” Respond & Rebuild uses a cleaning agent called Benefect (, but Bennett says, “you can use a number of different kinds of detergents. Sometimes we use detergent mixed with Borax.” Once the building is thoroughly scrubbed and dried, it’s ready for reconstruction.

“We think the most effective method of mold remediation is also the cheapest and most accessible,” says Bennett. “But it’s just very labor-intensive — because scrubbing every single surface of the home with a wire brush is not fast. It’s not as fast as a fogger; it’s not as fast as a power-washer. But based on our research, it’s actually more effective than those methods.”

Respond & Rebuild’s method is based on advice from university experts in the area, as well as on the practical experience of volunteers who worked in remediation after other storms, says Bennett. “We were able to get someone here who did extensive work in Katrina,” she says, and he showed us research studies that looked at different homes that had been done in different methods — looking at them when they were done, and then looking at them months later to see what had happened. And we cross-referenced that by talking with experts at the CUNY School of Public Health at Hunter College in the city, and at Long Island University.”

Respond & Rebuild is funded with private donations. In the early going, the group got in-kind donations of the tools and equipment they needed by signing up on the Amazon bridal registry set up by Occupy Sandy, a net roots relief group that grew out of Occupy Wall Street. And they raised about $40,000 with an online campaign on the “crowd funding” website, says Bennett. On Saturday, March 2, 120 volunteers showed up to help, Bennett reports — college students on spring break. “For years now, people have been going down to work on Katrina recovery in New Orleans on spring break,” she says. “Now the kids from the Northeast colleges are starting to come here instead.”

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