Post-Sandy health issues linger

By Crystal Kang

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One year after Hurricane Sandy hit Westchester and the New York metropolitan area, businesses and homeowners are still coping with the environmental and health impacts of the storm.

One of the most common emotional responses people had after being displaced was the fear of not returning to a normal life again.

“The saddest part is there are some residents who will never return to their homes,” said Evelyn Bauer, Project Hope team leader for Westchester Jewish Community Services (WJCS). “Right now, we’re talking to an elderly gentleman who was displaced from Howard Beach to Yonkers. We also have two elderly women – one who has a disability and lived in a rental facility before moving in with her friend, but now they’re not friends, and another woman who is in the midst of getting funding to rebuild her home. We’ve been able to connect them to a case manager.”

Robert Weitz gets a sample of the mold, which then gets analyzed in the lab to see what kind of mold it is and whether it is toxic or black mold. Robert Weitz gets a sample of the mold, which then gets analyzed in the lab to see what kind of mold it is and whether it is toxic or black mold.

In December, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) distributed $1.5 million to Westchester’s Department of Community Mental Health. The money in turn was used to contract with the WJCS and the Mental Health Association of Westchester to hire and train people to go door-to-door and provide crisis counseling for Sandy victims.

The grant for Project Hope, an international organization that offers health education programs and crisis counseling, assisted 1,235 people in Westchester and reached 8,400 people with its informational fliers and brochures.

“The seniors were in a vulnerable place,” said Deborah Akici, administrative support at WJCS. “We went to senior services centers to talk to them about how they can put a network around them. The large majority had experienced power outages and couldn’t get medication, visit family members or get Meals on Wheels.”

For those who needed additional services, the nonprofit introduced people to agencies that could assist them with meals, clothing and furniture, places of worship and financial services to rebuild their homes.

Initially, WJCS had difficulty finding those hardest hit. Crisis counselors reached out to community stakeholders, clergy, school administrators and other volunteer organizations to gain access to people who needed help the most.

“We had to gain their trust, especially among those who spoke Spanish and Portuguese,” Bauer said. “Those who needed the most help were the most afraid to ask for help, but on the flip side, others were more open. In places like New Rochelle, Peekskill, Yonkers and Mount Vernon, there was a great deal of service needs met.”

When the first phase of Project Hope ended in mid-March, WJCS began the second part of the project, which involves providing educational services to storm victims who are experiencing trauma, financial burdens and the emotional effects of losing their homes and loved ones.

WJCS organized 156 group meetings, hosting events for teenagers to senior citizens and giving each person a chance to talk about topics such as loneliness and resilience and how the storm impacted them. The organization also put together presentations that helped people become more aware of what happened when Sandy hit, who was affected and how the government responded. The project ends in November.

“The majority of the people will adjust and move on,” said Michael Orth, second deputy commissioner at the Department of Community Mental Health. “For the one or two percent, there are lingering mental health issues. We try to connect them to private practitioners, mental health clinics or faith-based groups as long-term support.”

The device Robert Weitz is holding reads through the wall to let him know if there is dampness. The device Robert Weitz is holding reads through the wall to let him know if there is dampness.

Service providers hit, too

Some of the most devastating stories of water damage a year ago were in Mamaroneck, where two environmental cleanup service providers experienced it firsthand.

The owners and operators of Northeast Environmental Inc. and Royal Environmental Services Corp. recalled the impact the storm surge had on their businesses as well as homes and businesses close to the Long Island Sound shoreline.

Arnie Tschantre, president of Royal Environmental Services, said his business was struggling within the first two weeks the storm hit as his office was flooded and had no electricity. As a cleanup service and oil company, Tschantre’s employees had to pump out water from its basement first before going out to Staten Island and Brooklyn to deliver generators to sewage treatment plants and pump out water from homes in Mamaroneck and Rye.

“We cleaned up basements that were flooded and cleaned up oil leaks,” Tschantre said. “We have vacuum trucks and booms to contain the material that floats on the water by soaking up the hydrocarbons and preventing further contamination.”

Dwayne Monaco, operations manager of Northeast Environmental, said his team didn’t have too many Westchester-based cleanup projects because it wasn’t as badly affected as other areas.

“There was one incident up in Ossining that was a considerable cleanup,” said Monaco. “The storm surge released oil into a four-block radius and it took us two to three weeks to clean up. That was the first response we had the day after the storm.”

But after late February into early March, environmental cleanup service providers began to experience a slowdown in business, Monaco said.

“Everything pretty much subsided,” Monaco said. “There really wasn’t a huge sales growth. It wasn’t as spectacular as we thought it would be. We only did two major jobs that were storm-related.”

New health concerns bloom

For some service providers, business is now just beginning to take off. “Because mold doesn’t grow immediately, there was a lull in our business right after the storm,” said Robert Weitz, principal at RTK Environmental Group L.L.C., a mold-testing company with an office at 333 Mamaroneck Ave. in White Plains. “But once the emergency work was done, the mold started to grow and our business has been doing extraordinarily ever since.”

Weitz said his business grew as people who quickly gutted and rebuilt their walls began to find mold growing. He explained that the mistake people made was trying to get their homes back together as quickly as possible without letting the moisture in the plywood and wooden structure dry.

“People ripped out their insulation and put new sheetrock in. And this summer, people found mold in wall cavities that were exacerbated and started growing again,” Weitz said.

His company is doing about 40 to 50 inspections a week to test for mold contamination, up from 30 to 35 before Sandy.

“There was work we had to turn down because there was just too much and we could only handle so much,” said Weitz who was out in the field by 7:30 a.m. staying out until past 6 p.m.

“People who put Sandy behind them thought their problems were over,” Weitz said. “Then they had respiratory symptoms related to mold. I had so many people call me and say ‘We got rid of everything’ but left the structure there on the backside of the plywood underneath the siding of the house. That’s cellulose material. All mold needs is cellulose and moisture. And it loves a dark space.”

After cleaning up homes where the storm surge has flooded basements and caused oil tanks to spill, environmental cleanup groups began to feel the emotional impact.

“After two months, we took three, four, five days off just to step away from it because everybody you saw was so emotionally affected by what happened,” Weitz said. “Every day we’re seeing two, three, four customers a day and it was the same. Many people were in tears. We were a shoulder to cry on at that point. We made our best effort to put it into perspective and told them this is nothing that can’t be resolved.”

While some local cleanup businesses that have been servicing the community for over 20 years and helping residents ride out the storm, others have seen this as an opportunity to start their own remediation businesses and make a quick buck.

“We not only had local people who said, ‘Gee, I can go out and press a pump button and (get an) air sample,’” Weitz said. “They saw the potential for money. They knew they’d have a captive audience, and a lot of times they were out of town companies from Georgia and Minnesota that came in and made as much money as they could and when they saw the work start to dwindle, they left.”

When homeowners would try to reach out to them, these out-of-town remediation company operators would shrug their shoulders and say they already went home.

“A lot of times people are ripping out what was unnecessary and rebuilding what was unnecessary because remediation companies tell them they need to rip out everything,” Weitz said. “People who are already hit so hard were hit even harder. There was a lot of scamming going on. We’ve seen a lot of testing companies go out of business once the opportunity to make big money has passed.”

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About the author

Crystal Kang
Crystal Kang, a Chicago native, is former a reporter for the Fairfield and Westchester business journals. She is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School and her work has appeared in news outlets including CNBC.com, Allstate Corporation’s investor relations website, and an NPR-based radio station in Urbana, Ill.

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