As floodwaters from Hurricane Sandy receded, homeowners, businesses and municipalities returned to their flood-damaged structures and quickly realized that the problem of water damage was compounded by chemical and microbial contamination. In an ideal world, flood victims would secure the services of qualified professional water damage and mold remediation technicians to assist them. In reality, flood victims and those that want to assist them are often times poorly trained or equipped, as was reported in the NY Daily News on Dec 3, 2012: “Sandy Cleanup: Workers who are sent into mold-infested storm damaged basements lack proper equipment, gear or training.”
On Monday, October 22, 2012 NOAA, The National Weather Service issued their first advisory that Tropical Depression 18 had officially become Tropical Storm Sandy. At that time, her maximum sustained winds neared 40 miles per hour. By Thursday, maximum sustained winds reached 105 miles per hour. The Red Cross and government officials encouraged residents of the northeast to take steps to be prepared and the Small Business Administration (SBA) urged business leaders to be ready for the massive storm. Sandy soon became an estimated 900-mile wide super storm, which made landfall in New Jersey and moved towards New York on October 29, 2012. The storm surge filled subways, tunnels, streets, homes and buildings.
Millions of people lost power and the elapsed time between flooding and remediation created extensive contamination. Both bacteria and fungi colonized wet materials because of favorable fungal ecology following the receding waters. Conditions provided a recipe for the growth and rapid amplification of water-loving molds. Degraded materials presented potential health risks to trained and untrained volunteers, flood victims and professionals. The musty, earthy odors and visible contamination was just the beginning. The true extent of the water damage and contamination was hidden in wall assemblies, building crevices and ceiling and floor spaces.
Floodwaters, by definition, are Category 3 water and should be considered grossly contaminated containing pathogenic, toxigenic or other harmful agents – often times including sewage. Therefore, it is crucial when performing remediation activities that workers understand the health and safety risks hidden in the buildings that they work. Experienced professionals need skills beyond basic water remediation technician skills. They must make every effort to reduce those risks through proper preparation and protection.
Recently, the emphasis on engineering safe cleaning processes to prevent health problems, combined with the mounting costs for remediating flood damage, has led to discussions with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to encourage the adoption of procedural standards for those who work in the disaster repair industry. It is FEMA that plays a crucial role in understanding the health and safety risks facing volunteers. FEMA has the backing of the federal government with funding to meet community needs regardless of alternative funding. Primarily, FEMA has been concerned with providing funding for flood victims without placing an emphasis on guidance to protect the health and safety risks faced by those providing volunteer service. An example that demonstrates the lack of proper guidance is the recommendation for using bleach (sodium hypochlorite) as a disinfectant. Even common household bleach can be hazardous to a volunteer’s health if it comes in contact with skin, is inhaled - causing damage to mucus membranes - or is mixed with ammonia, creating dangers from explosion or toxic fumes.
Large loss teams from Servpro, ServiceMaster, Belfor, Paul Davis, DKI and firms with the training, experience and certifications necessary to perform water damage restoration descended on the devastated area. Their combined resources are helping to return the affected areas back to pre-loss conditions despite conflicting guidance from well-meaning agencies like FEMA, the Red Cross, EPA and others. The Institute of Inspection, Cleaning, and Restoration Certification (IICRC), which serves as the major standard-setting and certifying body for the industry, provides guidance through its standards, while industry trade associations provided resources from their members. Both types of organizations are resources for the public and can assist in identifying procedures to follow.
I was in New York to assist contractors who instinctively knew areas which appeared minimally or non-water damaged actually harbored considerable hidden contamination. Trained professionals know that following flooding, the interior of wall assemblies, hidden spaces in ceilings and floors and areas of heating and air conditioning systems need to be inspected, sanitized with appropriate EPA-registered products and left clean and dry. It is only following removal of water-damaged and moldy building materials that the opportunity to inspect inner areas to determine the extent of the contamination exists.
It is crucial that contaminated material in flooded dwellings be properly remediated. The best professional restorers have acquired skills through training and certification classes that instruct them on a core set of skills which include how to safely remediate contaminated materials. However, homeowners, often without insurance coverage, face the daunting task of restoring contaminated materials on their own or with the assistance of volunteers, many of whom are ill prepared and often unaware of the potential health consequences they face. For example, during a safety meeting, I asked a leader of one of the volunteer groups I worked with what safety precautions were employed when removing contaminated drywall from a flooded home. She told me they turn the worst side of the contaminated material away from their face as they carry it out of the flooded home, along with using bleach to scrub bacteria and mold they could see. State safety officials present told me they don’t enforce laws enacted to protect individuals cleaning up after floods because of the nature of emergencies. Sadly, this situation has existed for too many years, leaving volunteers and flood victims at risk.
Sandy, and storms like her, do not appear to be diminishing and another flooding event is possible anytime. The effects of climate disruption will continue to plague our built environment. Thus, it is essential that professional cleaners, volunteers and flood victims educate themselves on how to safely clean contaminated buildings. We are living in a changing world where even slight changes in temperature have created devastating weather-related catastrophes. Hurricane Sandy will go down as one of the most costly storms we have ever seen. It won’t be the last. We need action from our industry to standardize remediation activities such as cleaning, drying and post-remediation verification that are supported by scientific research to create a level of assurance that protects the health and safety of workers and flood victims.