April Jorden had only been back in New Orleans a few days after Hurricane Ida hit when her eyes and throat started burning. She took an antihistamine to calm what she thought were allergy symptoms.
But after a couple more days in her Lower Garden District home, she was also feeling dizzy and having chest pain. On her wrist, her Apple watch started buzzing, clocking a resting heartbeat in the 130s. She has lupus, an autoimmune condition, and a seizure disorder, but normally it’s well-controlled. She had four seizures in one day after several days in her home post-Ida. Normally, she has about two per year.
It wasn’t until a friend in real estate advised her to look at her ceiling that she saw a potential cause: mold creeping out of her ceiling vents.
Now, after a brief hospital stay and a stint at her parents’ house, she’s feeling better. But she’s worried about her health, what to do with her belongings and finding a new place to live.
“I don’t know what to do — if I need to wash things or throw them away,” said Jorden, 44, who operates a business out of her home as a psychic medium. “It’s like it wrecked my whole life.”
More than three weeks after Hurricane Ida hit, some elderly residents at an Algiers apartment complex still have mold and mildew in their homes.
As people return to live in their partially damaged homes or start repairs on houses that were inundated, it’s easy to miss a lurking, quickly developing threat: mold.
While there is a baseline of mold in all environments — outside and inside, in dry and wet climates — a hurricane and extended power outages in the swamp-like conditions of August and September can create an unhealthy home. In addition, piled-up debris and stagnant garbage create playgrounds for mold spores.
For some, the mold is not a problem. But for others, allergy-like symptoms can morph into a life-long sensitivity. For immunocompromised people like Jorden, mold can cause debilitating symptoms and make homes completely uninhabitable.
Researchers know a lot more about mold after studying what happened after Hurricane Katrina, when water sat in homes for weeks and mold blossomed in ever porous crevice. After the storm, many in the city experienced substantial respiratory symptoms — flu-like illness, coughing and skin rashes.
“We used to call it the Katrina cough,” said Dr. James Diaz, program director of environmental & occupational health sciences at LSU Health New Orleans School of Public Health.
Researchers found mold contamination inside 46% of homes after Katrina. Outside, mold was measured at three times what is considered a safe amount.
But it’s been difficult to say how big of a problem mold exposure is because it’s hard to measure. There is no easy test for mold — it doesn’t show up in the blood stream — and most people seem to get better once they remove the mold or themselves from the environment.
The elderly, newborn babies and other immunocompromised people can experience deadly infections and long-term complications from mold. In people with diabetes or prediabetes, mold can take hold in the lungs, living off of high blood sugar and causing lung problems that are difficult to diagnose and treat, said Diaz.
And this year, there is something new.
“It’s called COVID,” said Diaz. “We don’t know enough about immunosuppressive effects of mold and COVID exposure.”
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“If my rental company had fixed the leak in my roof and done the repairs when I told them about the mold, this wouldn’t have happened,” said Bryant, who did not want to name the company because she feared repercussions. “While this is from the hurricane, their neglect to address it has really caused this to be the situation.”
Mold can be remediated, but it’s best to catch it quickly, said Felicia Rabito, a Tulane University epidemiologist who researches hazards of housing conditions. Mold requires water to thrive, so people should patch up wherever it’s coming in and dry out the house with air conditioning and dehumidifiers as soon possible.
After, the mold has to be removed, usually by cutting out the walls and insulation. But living in a home with mold while repairs are ongoing can be dangerous even for people who are seemingly healthy, she said, and while the symptoms go away for some people, others will live with the effects long-term.
“It can kind of change your whole life,” said Rabito. “You become highly sensitized, you get sinus reactions, allergic reactions, if you’re asthmatic, you develop asthma, you develop breathing problems. It can go on and on. It can become chronic.”
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Researchers who study the effects of mold know that it increases after natural disasters that cause flooding and power outages, and they know that it causes health problems in some people. But because people are exposed to a number of hazards and stressors after a hurricane, no one really understands how big the problem is. As a result, mold in buildings is not regulated by the federal government and it is difficult to hold landlords accountable when mold flourishes.
Ashley Bryant, 33, came back to her Uptown apartment just a couple days after the storm. There were a few black dots on her ceiling and an outline of water damage. Bryant notified the management and evacuated again because she has allergies and was worried about her two dogs and cats staying in the building.
“Fungal disease in the lungs can be as challenging to treat as cancer (in animals),” said Bryant, a veterinarian.
When she came back a week later, the mold had blossomed across the ceilings and walls. She had to stay in a hotel and pay $400 for movers to put her things in a temporary apartment. In all, she estimated she spent about $1,000 because of the mold damage. Now, she worries the mold is so extensive that it will never be fixed correctly.
After the 2016 floods, Denham Springs resident Lauren Kennedy spent six months dealing with severe allergy issues. She realized it was mold once a wall became soft enough that it could no longer hold a towel rack.
“The wall was just mush,” said Kennedy, 35. “Three days later we started seeing mold.”
After four or five doctors’ visits and a few rounds of antibiotics, Kennedy’s doctor finally ordered an allergy test.
“I lit up like a Christmas tree for mold,” she said.
She did allergy shots for a year and a half before COVID made it harder for her to see the doctor. She started them back up recently when she felt the familiar irritation.
“I don’t wish this on anyone,” said Kennedy, a martial arts instructor who had to take off work at times because of antibiotic side effects and allergy symptoms. “I tell my husband all the time, let’s pack and move to the beach where there’s no grass and no trees, and I won’t have any allergies,” she said, laughing. “He won’t go for that, so allergy shots it is.”
When Jorden asked doctors at the hospital if her heart problems, increased seizures and dizziness might be mold-related, they were “leery to blame anything,” she said. One of the four doctors who treated her did confirm that mold could cause those symptoms, but said she’d need to get an allergy test from her general physician to determine whether it was causing a reaction.
The Louisiana Department of Health said this week that almost all buildings damaged by Hurricane Ida will have mold, and recommended professional remediation for moldy areas larger than 10 square feet.
People cleaning mold should wear protective N95 masks, gloves and goggles, and items that cannot be washed and disinfected should be thrown out, including carpet, drywall, upholstered furniture, mattresses, books or other paper products. People with compromised immune systems or breathing problems should not go inside moldy buildings.