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After the flood, housing experts broke the mold: last spring's floods in upstate New York provided living laboratories to two Human Ecology experts to test mold and mildew remediation methods--and then they shared their findings.

Scouting some of the thousands of homes wrecked by flooding last June in New York's Southern Tier and Catskill foothills, Mark Pierce, extension associate in the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis, couldn't decide which was worse--the sight or the smell.

His trained nose was prepared to sense the telltale VOCs (volatile organic compounds) produced by fungal mold as it grows on damp building materials. Much worse--overwhelming, in fact--was the awful odor from rotting food.

Electrical power had been out for days, after a record 15 inches of rain on June 28, 2006, overflowed the Susquehanna, Delaware, and Chenango rivers. Even refrigerators that still worked, despite high water in the mechanicals, were abandoned when evacuated residents returned to face the stench.


A Buoyant Mystery And refrigerators also explained the mysterious holes that Pierce was seeing in kitchen ceilings. Above the mud and ruined household goods--above the high-water marks and the budding crops of mold on kitchen walls--plaster ceilings were punched through from the inside.

When he saw so many window panes broken outward, Pierce solved the ceiling-damage puzzle: "Air-tight refrigerators float," Pierce says. "That's how high the water was."

Weeks later, when U.S. Geological Survey engineers got around to calculating the so-called recurrence interval for the 2006 flood, they said the Susquehanna had not been that high--at the sites of the present-day Unadilla and Conklin, N.Y.--in 450 years. The last time the Chenango River rose to 2006 levels--where Sherburne and Greene, N.Y., were nearly washed away--was an estimated five centuries ago. The riverfront communities had been through several floods in recent years, but the late-June event was the worst. "I've never seen damage like that," says Pierce.

Extension for the Unexpected Horrific sights, smells, and other insults to the senses did not matter when county Cornell Cooperative Extension educators called for help last year, and Extension experts in the College of Human Ecology responded with what they do best: provide science-based, understandable information on what to do about the unexpected.

For Pierce and for Joseph Laquatra, the Hazel E. Reed Human Ecology Extension Chair in Family Policy and a nationally recognized expert in residential environments, that information concerned mold. While damage from the 2006 flood was less extensive than the devastation in the Gulf Coast states after Hurricane Katrina, there was one similarity: warm, wet conditions of early summer in the Northeast favored the growth of mold. As unprecedented were the 2006 flood levels, so was the mold problem for Southern Tier residents. Pierce and Laquatra knew how to address the immediate crisis with clean-up and repair and how to avoid mold problems that can haunt residents for years to come.

Hundreds of packets of authoritative information on the health risks of mold, as well as its detection, remediation, and prevention, were prepared and distributed through county Cornell Cooperative Extension offices to home owners and renters, building contractors, municipal offices, FEMA personnel, and Red Cross workers. They also were given to volunteers who traveled to the area and offered to help the flood victims.

Pierce's scouting trip through flood-damaged areas told him what people needed to know. Later that year, Laquatra used a small grant to collaborate with another specialist at Louisiana State University (LSU) and prepare a guide to choosing qualified mold-remediation contractors. In addition to Louisiana and New York, several other states are distributing the Cornell- and LSU--based information.

"Unlike Louisiana, which licenses mold-remediation contractors, New York State has no such certification process," Laquatra notes. "Anyone can print a business card and call himself a mold-remediation professional. There are some good ones who know what they're doing, but there are some who are happy to take your money and splash some chemicals around. But they don't always solve the problem in the long run."

Hidden Moisture For example, simply tearing off water-damaged drywall (Sheetrock[R] or other gypsum-based panels) and replacing old materials with new can lead to future problems if even a small amount of moisture remains in wood framing of a house, Laquatra warns. The best test is a hand-held, two-pronged moisture-sensing meter that measures electrical conductivity when the prongs are jabbed into building materials.

And mold doesn't need much moisture to grow, Laquatra notes. Wood in structural framing should contain no more than 14 percent moisture, and 12 or less is better, he specifies. By comparison, firewood is considered to be dry enough to burn at a moisture content of 20 percent or less. Sealing wet wood behind freshly installed wallboard can foster mold growth inside wall cavities. Painting or caulking over moldy surfaces is not a final fix, either.

Lessons Learned The rebuilding of the Southern Tier continues nearly a year later, thanks in large part, to volunteer labor. The information on mold remediation--together with other kinds of assistance from Cornell Cooperative Extension to residents and farmers--is easing a painful recovery process.

Pierce and Laquatra have begun to reflect on lessons learned from the sights (and smells). With so-called hundred-year floods occurring every couple of years these days, people probably shouldn't rebuild in flood plains, Laquatra advises. Indeed, many homeowners are not doing so because flood insurance covered only a small fraction of the cost of rebuilding. And many homeowners' policies do not cover water damage from flooding.

But what about houses that were lost or damaged in sites far above the traditional flood plains? What should those homeowners do? "Read the fine print on your insurance policies," Laquatra says. "You'd be surprised what isn't covered."

For more information:

Mark Pierce

Joseph Laquatra
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Author:Segelken, Roger
Publication:Human Ecology
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:May 1, 2007
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