Melbourne FL – The little hand-painted sign on Shannon Watson’s house says “Home Sweet Home.” But it’s wise to stay away. Mold and mildew lurk inside.
Lime-green stains are seeping through the grain of her wood-paneled walls, marring her work office. Black smears streak the closet floor in her 6-year-old daughter’s bedroom — Samantha was sick for weeks. And the upstairs ceiling keeps sagging lower and lower, weighted by the wet, raggedy insulation beneath the leaking roof.
“I hack all day long, all night, like a 90-year-old man dying of cancer,” Watson described. “My lungs are so sore. You have a sore chest constantly. And your throat’s sore from spitting up mucus.”
Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne battered Watson’s Highland Estates house into a haven of fungus. Unfortunately, like who-knows-how-many others across Brevard County, her mold woes weren’t easily fixed. She couldn’t hire a roofer until last week because her insurance checks were delayed.
So water and moisture continued to infiltrate her home, fostering mold growth months after the storms. “I just bought the house. I’m a single mom. I’m barely paying the bills,” she said. “We’ve been sick four to six weeks. I get nauseous at times.”
Watson wages war against the spore invasion. Armed with a bottle of fungicide, she sprays interior walls and ceilings every day. Upstairs, a dehumidifier-air conditioner runs constantly — “if I turn it off, you won’t be able to breathe,” she warned.
So how many Brevard County residents suffered mold-damaged homes during this summer’s rash of hurricanes? Good question. The Federal Emergency Management Agency does not keep statistics on Florida’s post-hurricane mold problems, spokeswoman Lisa Pierce said. Neither does the Florida Department of Health, said spokeswoman Lindsay Hodges, though the agency does conduct individual mold consultations and inspections.
William Jenkins, county environmental health services manager, estimated the number of mold victims in sweeping terms: “most of the population of Brevard.” “It’s a real pain in the neck. There’s no real good answer to your question,” Jenkins said. By today FEMA hoped to have 900 temporary trailers and mobile homes set up in Brevard County for residents with ruined homes, spokesman Brad Gair said.
Children, senior citizens and people with weakened immune systems are most vulnerable to mold-caused sickness, said Arvind Dhople, biological sciences professor at Florida Institute of Technology. “Mold can be just like bacteria — pathogenic or nonpathogenic,” Dhople said “In some cases, (mold) is completely harmless. But there are some molds that release chemicals which might be harmful.”
Bill Bailey is director of the Hurricane Insurance Information Center. He said Watson’s plight, like those of others battling mold across Florida, represents sporadic, case-by-case situations — not a large block of insurance claims. Mold growing on a ceiling tile. “We’re just not hearing ‘mold.’ We’re just not hearing that term being used,” he said. In years past, Bailey said Florida mold coverage was excluded from homeowners insurance policies. Today, coverage is typically included with a $10,000 cap, he said.
Mold insurance is available for up to $50,000 in damages, for added premiums. To qualify for coverage, Bailey said household mold must originate from a source of insured loss, such as water damage. This damage must have arisen by sudden, accidental means. “It can’t be one of these maintenance deals where you’ve got water seepage and you notice mold six months later,” he said.
Wearing a Mask
Three days after Hurricane Frances, Melbourne resident Laurie Testa said she was sickened by black, furry mold beneath her window at the Hampton Greens apartments. She has a history of asthma attacks, and she went to the hospital for breathing problems. “It’s like when your friends get together and hold you down and you can’t catch your breath,” she said. “It feels like someone is just squishing you, and you can’t get your air in.”
Testa even occasionally wore a ventilator mask, as she did during the 1998 wildfires. She moved out and is now involved in a lease dispute — but she still hasn’t found a permanent home. “Every Sunday, I look in the paper,” Testa said.