Mold left behind from the historic storm last fall has won the battle for about half of Janell Smith’s northern Richland County home, the mother of three will admit.
More than five months after the storm, Smith and her husband have surrendered the living room, a bathroom and two bedrooms, shutting doors and avoiding the mold-infested areas.
Clothes, furniture and other household items are among the mold’s many casualties, the 34-year-old said. The “black, gray, disgusting” growth also has taken a toll on her 2-year-old son’s health and the family’s peace of mind, she said.
“I just wanted to stay closed up in my room and have my kids with me in my room because it was awful,” Smith said.
“This is not the way to live,” she said.
This is not the way to live.
Janell Smith, whose family lives in only part of their home because the other part is mold-tainted
Smith and other residents across South Carolina first dealt with rising waters from October’s deadly flooding. Now, they’re battling the mold left behind.
And some, such as Smith, who live paycheck to paycheck have found themselves in a bind.
They don’t have the money to pay a contractor for expensive mold remediation work, but they also can’t afford to give up on their homes and start over somewhere else.
And with little to no help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency or homeowner’s insurance, some victims are finding that the moldy after-effects of the storm can be just as troublesome as the flood itself.
A new enemy
Some residents simply didn’t know they needed to clean up water damage right away after the flooding, and others didn’t have the means to prevent a possible mold outbreak.
Mold from flood waters also has surfaced in crawl spaces in some Midlands homes weeks after residents thought they were in the clear.
Floodwaters never entered Smith’s rent-to-own house on Old Fairfield Road, but water did rush into the crawl space under the low-lying half of the home. The family first noticed mold weeks after the flooding, starting a struggle in which Smith would ultimately concede defeat.
Smith said she called in a mold expert who explained that the walls and flooring needed to be aired out. He gave the family tips for keeping the growth at bay, but weeks of spraying peroxide and scrubbing the walls with bleach and water didn’t save many of their belongings, Smith said.
The family couldn’t afford dehumidifiers or other preventative measures, Smith said. So, they would wake up some mornings to find another piece of furniture or clothing covered in spores, and they would toss it out.
“It made me want to leave and give up this house,” Smith said. “It discouraged me. I didn’t want to clean up. I didn’t want to do nothing.”
Eventually, that’s just what she did, shutting doors downstairs and telling her three children to stay away from that side of the house.
Smith said a contractor told her the mold remediation would cost around $20,000. That’s about the typical market rate for mold remediation for an entire house, said Michela Schildts, the S.C. Operations Manager for St. Bernard Project, a New Orleans-based nonprofit in town since October to help homeowners rebuild after the storm.
“That can be financially crippling,” said Schildts, who said St. Bernard Project has noticed “significant, in-your-face” mold problems in most of the 100 or so homes they have seen so far in South Carolina.
‘A dead end’
Like many residents dealing with mold after the storm, Smith said she applied to FEMA for help but was turned away.
While FEMA can provide money to help residents get back on their feet and in a livable environment after a disaster, the agency does not give individuals or businesses money specifically for mold remediation. FEMA also won’t declare a home unlivable because of mold, a spokesman said.
FEMA in some cases can provide money to clean up a home early to help avoid mold and other after-effects of disasters, FEMA spokesman Ricardo Zuniga said. Zuniga said the agency has given more than $1 million to roughly 5,100 individuals and households for cleanup. It is unclear how many of those households used FEMA aid to clean up mold.
“If they let it go and moisture stays in the home and creates a bigger problem 2-3 months after the flooding there isn’t much we can do,” Zuniga said in an email. “Mold is a difficult issue all around if it is not cleaned up and dried out early on, the source of the mold may be related to other things such as a leak in the home which is hard to determine the root cause.”
FEMA can offer rental assistance to help flood-affected residents move, Zuniga said, “but only if the mold is of such severity that it is beyond cleaning, meaning it ate through or damaged the drywall to where it cannot be cleaned off.”
Smith said in her case, a FEMA representative at a disaster recovery center explained she and her family still could move upstairs.
“FEMA was like a dead end,” Smith said.
Residents battling flood-caused mold generally don’t get much help from homeowner’s insurance, either. Some policies can offer help with mold remediation, but the mold problems likely would have to stem from a covered loss, such as a burst water pipe, said Ann Roberson, spokeswoman for the S.C. Department of Insurance.
Mold related to flooding, which isn’t usually covered by homeowner’s insurance, “most likely” would not be covered, she said.
Mold creates more than financial problems. It can also cause respiratory problems, especially for people with asthma.
Smith said she took her asthmatic 2-year-old son, Trivoris Smith, to the hospital four times in the months after the flooding with a runny nose, swollen eyes and a cough he couldn’t kick. Now, she said, she tries to send her children away to relatives’ and friends’ homes on weekends to get them out of the house.
It’s real tough, because I’m a mommy’s mommy. If I could have my kids with me all day, every day, I would.
Janell Smith, on letting her children stay with friends and relatives to avoid her mold-tainted house
“It’s tough. It’s real tough, because I’m a mommy’s mommy,” Smith said. “If I could have my kids with me all day, every day, I would.”
Some Columbia allergists said they have seen an uptick in patients coming in with mold-related symptoms since the flooding, some complaining the storm left mold in their homes.
Patients living in a mold-infested home can come in with nasal congestion, sinus pressure, post-nasal drip and coughing, said Greg Black, an allergist with Carolina Allergy and Asthma Consultants.
Asthmatics living in those environments report wheezing, coughing, chest tightness and difficulty breathing, he said.
“Mold tends to be a very powerful trigger for people’s lower airways,” said Chad Gunnlaugsson, a doctor at SouthEastern Ear, Nose & Throat. “The spores of the mold are highly allergenic, and people with baseline asthma, when exposed to a moldy environment, it tends to really increase the flare-ups.”
The spores of the mold are highly allergenic.
Columbia doctor Chad Gunnlaugsson
Gunnlaugsson said people living in mold-infested homes have two options: Improve the environment through cleaning or mold remediation, or seek out the care of an allergist.
Help on the horizon?
Without help from homeowner’s insurance or FEMA, residents left with mold from October’s flooding for now have few options: Pay out of pocket for clean up, or hope that a nonprofit or volunteer organization will help.
Smith said she still cleans with peroxide and bleach and wants to save money to pay for mold remediation.
She was one of more than 43,000 South Carolina residents who have called the United Way’s 2-1-1 helpline to ask for help related to the storm.
More than 1,100 of those residents have called only for flood-related mold problems, according to United Way spokeswoman Natasha Jenkins.
Smith said she was referred to St. Bernard Project and is now applying to the nonprofit for help. St. Bernard Project has done mold remediation work in eight homes since the flooding, Schildts said.
And the nonprofit has trained about 15 representatives from church, volunteer and nonprofit groups in South Carolina to do mold remediation in flood-damaged homes, Schildts said. She said St. Bernard Project plans to train more across the state in the coming months.
The nearly $157 million in flood recovery aid recently allocated to South Carolina from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development also could help. At least half of that money, nearly $97 million of which will go directly to state agencies, must benefit low- and moderate-income people and families.
And though the money is still months away, it can be used to help homeowners rebuild homes.
Smith said if she can’t get help from St. Bernard Project, she and her husband will save money and try to tackle the work one piece at a time.
“God ain’t gonna put no more on me than I can bear,” Smith said. “That’s what’s keeping me going. My faith is keeping me going.”
Tips to prevent post-flooding mold
- Remove wet carpet and padding.
- Discard porous materials – those that absorb water – such as dry wall, some paneling, fiberglass insulation, cellulose insulation, mattresses, pillows, wallpaper and upholstered furniture.
- Remove dry wall and other porous wallboards at least 12 inches above the visible water line left by the flood.
- Clean wall studs, where wallboard has been removed, with bleach/water mixture and allow it to dry completely.
- Wash floors, concrete or brick walls, countertops, plastic, glass and other non-porous materials first with non-ammonia soap and water, and then with a solution of one to two cups of bleach and a gallon of water.
- Wear rubber gloves and eye protection when using bleach and make sure area is well ventilated. Don’t mix bleach and ammonia.
- Materials that cannot be effectively cleaned and dried should be placed in sealed plastic bags to prevent the spread of mold spores.
- People allergic to mold and people with asthma or other respiratory conditions should not do mold cleanup.
Signs of mold
Mold often appears on walls and ceilings. Mold looks like spots and can be several different colors.
Residents living in mold-infested homes might smell a strong, musty and earthy odor.
How to spot mold
Sometimes even if mold has entered your home, it’s not obvious. Here are a few tricks on how to spot it:
- Check for an earthy or musty odor
- Angle a flashlight at the wall to reveal color contrast
- Look behind shelves and dressers, or anywhere the air is cold and not ventilated
- Pat pillows with a spatula to see what dust comes up
- Check surfaces for a slick or slimy feel