Written by Mark Darrough, PortCityNews.com
Pender County — A county health crew will go to Maple Hill in coming weeks to determine the severity of mold in various homes where residents have reported respiratory problems.
In response to recent concerns of mold-related health issues in Maple Hill, a small rural community near the county’s northeast border, Pender County Director of Health and Human Services Carolyn Moser said she will be sending an environmental health employee and health educator to inspect homes on a list provided by local nonprofit Pender Long Term Recovery Group (LTRG).
“If there is a problem that is really too big for individuals to handle, then we’re going to make referrals to the NC Baptist Men (NCBM) Disaster Relief in Pender County, and let them see what they can do,” Moser said.
Moser said the group has the funding and resources required to handle significant mold issues: a warehouse full of lumber, sheetrock, insulation, and plywood if homes need to be mucked and gutted, the potent chemicals required to kill severe mold sources, and volunteers from 35 states who have come to help rebuilding efforts since Hurricane Florence caused widespread flooding in the county.
“We’re just going to assess and refer, which is a lot of what public health does anyway,” Moser said. “A lot of times when Public Health goes out to a problem, we’re very limited in resources to hook people up with. We’re fortunate this time that we do have a resource [in the NCBM].”
She said her staff is currently compiling resource packets and plans for staff to visit Maple Hill by the end of next week.
One Maple Hill resident, Ramona Rochelle, said waters from Florence had flooded the foundation of her home; now her floors were soft and buckling up at the corners.
“When it first started — all this rain — I never seen so much water in all my born days,” Rochelle said. “And sitting here, I said, ‘What is that loud bump?’ And I didn’t realize: it was the house shifting.”
She pointed to various cracks along the walls and ceiling that she noticed in the months after the storm. Since then she said she has been constantly spot-cleaning mold and mildew stains on walls and floors with a mold-specific disinfectant.
Rochelle said that many of her neighbors have also struggled with above-normal sinus issues and cases of bronchitis. Her son, Ricarolos Rochelle, has seen his asthma flare up for the first time in years, she said.
Maple Hill resident Romana Rochelle said she noticed cracks in the ceiling and along the walls of her home after it “shifted” in the weeks after Hurricane Florence brought flood waters beneath it. “After the storm, they had to put him directly on an Albuterol machine because of his asthma. Advair, ProAir inhalers — none of that was working for him,” Rochelle said.
She said a pulmonologist clinic in Jacksonville told her they were treating her son so heavily because they believed his increased asthma symptoms could possibly be linked to the mold in her home. In November, she said they began giving him Xolair shots — one shot costs $2,627 but is provided by a company called Genentech for the first year of treatment, she said — twice a month.
Although a team from Wilmington Area Rebuilding Ministry (WARM) replaced her roof, she said her applications for assistance from FEMA and her insurance company, State Farm, were denied because “the water didn’t actually come into the house.”
“I wanted to get my floors fixed, but FEMA did no kind of payout,” Rochelle said. “They told me the house was livable.”
Fixing Mold “on the Cheap”
Angelia Hayes is a minister at a Baptist church in Maple Hill. After Florence brought water underneath her home for several weeks, she said her husband hired a crew to spray the foundation with Shockwave mold killer and replace the soaked insulation beneath the home. Now she is confident there is no mold in her home.
Others in Maple Hill, she said, did not replace the insulation and have not fared as well. Her neighbor three homes down had to go to an emergency room after she was “overcome smelling a scent” in her home, she said.
According to LTRG founder Jennifer Witkowski, this points to a wider problem in Maple Hill and other low-income areas of the county that were flooded during Florence.
“There are a lot of people who — knowing FEMA wouldn’t give them assistance, and knowing other programs would hopefully come eventually — people would do it on the cheap,” Witkowski said. “Even with drywall: it’s supposed to be cut two feet above the water level. People would cut like right above [the water level] just trying to save money. They’re not realizing that with mold, you can’t always see it and it can be everywhere.”
Angelia Hayes, a minister at a church in Maple Hill, said her mother lives in a mold-infected house and has contracted pneumonia because her immune system is weak. Like Rochelle, Hayes said her mom was denied FEMA assistance to repair her flood-damaged home.
“The FEMA contractor who came out said it needed to be structurally unstable,” Hayes said.
Pneumonia on the Rise
Witkowski also believes respiratory issues that have been reported in mold-infected homes in Maple Hill are commonly misdiagnosed by doctors who presume symptoms are a result of seasonal allergies, and that doctors are not asking if a patient has been exposed to mold or if the patient’s house was flooded. Hayes agreed and suggested it goes both ways.
“[Doctors] haven’t been asking, ‘Well have you been in a moldy home?’ These are the basic questions they should be asking the patients,” Hayes said. “And the patients should be saying, ‘I have mold issues in my home.’ And that’s what they need to be checking.”
Hayes said her mother, 76, is still living in a mold-infected house three miles from her own and has contracted pneumonia because her immune system is weak.
“Because she’s constantly in her house with that mold,” Hayes said. “She’s closed off in this room that’s just mold-ridden. She needs to get out of that house. She’s bought stuff to spray it, but if the moisture is still underneath, it’s just going to grow back.”
She also said an increasing number of members in her church and residents in the community have come down with common colds, pneumonia, bacterial infections, and bronchitis.
“Pneumonia is on the rise,” Hayes said.
Both Witkowski and Hayes believe mold remediation and health education is a key component going forward.
“Part of the problem is, people don’t know that it’s a health risk,” Witkowski said. “And they’re just getting sick and sick, and using vinegar and bleach on it, not realizing the whole home has to be ripped down. So it’s really just a lack of knowledge; people are making themselves sick and not realizing it.”
As for the county’s response, Moser believes her department’s referrals to the NCBM Disaster Relief group will be crucial if a significant mold problem is discovered in Maple Hill.
“Any place that hasn’t been mucked or gutted — if they know about those places, they will pursue it,” Moser said.