Mold has gotten a head start
By LISA FALKENBERG Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
Sept. 29, 2008, 11:14PM
**SHARON STEINMANN CHRONICLE **
Mold coats the shelves of Maya’s Grocery in Galveston on Saturday as the Ochoa family cleans up from the storm.
GALVESTON — It’s black, white, green, blue, even calico. It feasts, floats and climbs. It can show itself, or not. It’s toxic, or not. It can resemble a rash, pocket lint, a puff of smoke.
It can make your throat cough, eyes itch, head pound, or leave you alone.
The menace is mold, and it’s ravaging water-damaged homes and buildings all over Galveston in the island’s latest battle wrought by Hurricane Ike.
Residents and business owners who were finally allowed last week to inspect their properties may have been relieved to find that the structures survived floodwaters and high winds. But many discovered the damage done by various species of mold left to breed wildly in the nurturing environs of damp, hot buildings whose doors and windows were sealed for nearly two weeks.
At Maya’s Grocery and Food Products on Avenue L, the grown children of 80-year-old Enrique Ochoa and his wife, 78-year-old Alicia, donned respirator masks, rubber boots and gloves and plastic jumpsuits several days last week to combat the mold, mildew, flies and fumes that have overtaken the flooded Mexican food store their parents had operated for half a century.
“None of us have training what to do with mold,” said daughter Elizabeth Ochoa, a 52-year-old San Antonio nurse. “We just know it’s nasty and you need masks.”
The battle has become personal with her sister, Oralia Guererro, a 46-year-old speech pathologist in Austin. She’s confounded by one particular species resembling a hairball that continues to grow on a pillar despite attempts to kill it with Clorox.
“See those balls?” Guererro asked, pointing. “I don’t know what it is, but it comes back.”
The water likely reached 4 feet at Maya’s, a neighborhood institution known for its homemade tortillas and tamales. A blue lace of mold grows on the wall under a yellow piñata. Enrique Ochoa, a pioneer on the island in Mexican food and spice imports, believes he lost more than $80,000 in machinery alone.
A health hazard
In the 12 days the store sat shuttered after Ike, expensive meat and other food spoiled in freezers, and a colorful carpet of mold smothered everything not damaged by water. The smell was so bad that on the first day, as the family removed spoiled meat from the building, a Galveston police officer followed the scent, thinking it was a dead body.
At this point, the whole building is a health hazard, the family said, including the second story, where the owners lived above the store. Black mold marches alongside the staircase to the couple’s apartment.
The elder Ochoa — he and his wife are simply known to locals as “Mr. and Mrs. Maya” — said he hopes to be able to clean the buildings well enough to sell them. Maya’s likely will be no more.
“I think we’re going to leave the island after 65 years,” said the native of Coahuila, Mexico, a white respirator mask covering all but his sad eyes. “I don’t think we can take another one of these.”
Elizabeth Ochoa said she’s frustrated that it took so long for Galveston officials to let the family on the island to assess damage and begin cleaning up.
“They should have let us in sooner, especially the business owners,” she said. “I think we could have saved more.”
Her frustrations were compounded, she said, when the police officer mentioned that they probably could have returned sooner because business owners were being allowed.
City officials, of course, had to balance the risk of greater property loss with public safety. But one wonders if a more organized, phased, look-and-leave policy could have allowed residents to begin fighting mold earlier.
The tedious process involves getting out the water and porous wet items that can’t be saved, such as rugs, Sheetrock and furniture. The structure must then be dried before a bleach solution is applied to kill the mold, including the stuff lurking inside walls
’This is horrendous’
It’s a process that Doug Heiner, a 26-year-old, third-year medical student, was only just beginning on Friday. The father of two small children and one on the way had just returned to his 1960s single-story home on Tuna Street, in the Fishing Village neighborhood.
“You don’t know how far the mold goes,” Heiner said. His front lawn was strewn with nearly all his family’s possessions: from plastic toys, to a leather desk chair, to wooden shelves covered with Technicolor mold. “I thought, with some of the furniture, you’d be able to wipe it off.”
But he quickly learned better. He would have been in quite “a fix,” he said, without the help of a troop of yellow-T-shirted Mormon volunteers who were helping remove furniture and patches of sopping carpet that, nearly two weeks after Ike, still squirted water when walked on.
“These houses are almost destroyed before you can get back into town,” said Elder Curtis Brown, 62, a retired school administrator from Benson, Ariz. “Nothing against the city, but it was a disadvantage we couldn’t get on the island.”
“I’ve been around mold, but nothing like this. This is horrendous,” said Brown, as he stood in Heiner’s hallway, his face covered with a mask to protect him from the odor. “We’re fighting against time right now.”