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Dealing with mold

A hurricane’s lingering calling card

Its spores begin to bloom 24 to 48 hours after contact with water, warmth and darkness — three of the only items in abundance after a storm has turned South Florida into a giant powerless petri dish.

Mold ruins walls, ceilings, carpets and clothing. It makes our houses smell and can cause health problems in susceptible people. If your roof leaks during a hurricane, expect mold to move in shortly afterward, say experts.


The sniff test: If you detect a fusty, mildewy odor, you likely have mold. But some mold passes the sniff test.

The next step is to inspect your house with a flashlight. You’re looking for any blotchy growth that starts out white and turns black. Black mold can be an indication that spores have been festering for a while. If you have allergies or a compromised immune system, wear a protective mask with a NIOSH N95 rating, available at hardware stores.

Check your attic first, especially if you’ve had a roof leak.

Check the sides of furniture, the undersides of area rugs, and walls and ceilings.


Caught early, mold outbreaks can be stopped. Walls, ceilings and floors should be washed with a diluted bleach solution or trisodium phosphate as soon as possible then primed and repainted. Use rubber gloves.

Mold on wooden furniture can be removed with isopropyl alcohol (test the finish first). Furniture polish will also destroy mold microbes.

On leather furniture, wipe with diluted alcohol (1 C. denatured alcohol with 1 C. water.) If stain remains, use saddle soap or mild detergent. Dry in sun, if possible.

Mold that has been growing for weeks requires more extreme measures. Mold-infested drywall must be cut out and discarded. Fiberboard furniture or cabinets infested with mold should also be thrown away.

Be sure to check attics. Soaked insulation may need to be thrown out.

Clean your air conditioner or have a professional do it, since the units frequently harbor mold microbes.

There is no license for mold clean-up firms, so ask for someone with certification from an agency such as the Association of Specialists in Cleaning and Restoration, the National Association of Mold Professionals or the International Air Quality Control Commission.


Mold’s favorite food appears to be wallboard, also called drywall. Its paper or cellulose backing contains a smorgasbord of organic treats that mold spores crave. A nasty black mold called Stachybotrys chartarum is particularly fond of drywall. The most insidious aspect of mold-infected drywall is that spores usually begin to grow on the back, where they can reproduce in the warm dark.

The mold isn’t visible until the colonies accumulate in such numbers that they grow through the wallboard. New chemical sealants can make homes more resistant to mold.

— Barbara Marshall

Grills are convenient, but can be dangerous

When the power goes out, you may be cooking on a charcoal, propane or natural gas grill, or a hibachi.

Never leave grill unattended. Keep children away! Don’t grill near leaves, wood or other flammable objects.


Safety first! Grills can kill. Charcoal emits carbon monoxide. It’s odorless and colorless and deadly. Grills emit it even if the lid is on, and they can emit it even if coals appear completely out. After Hurricane Wilma in 2005, a mother in a family of three died from carbon monoxide poisoning after a smoldering grill was left in a kitchen.

Grill food in a well-ventilated area. NEVER bring a grill inside a home, camper or tent. Do NOT grill in a garage, carport or shed.

Douse coals with water, stir and douse again. They are out when they are cool to the touch.

Stock up early. Store in a dry area, away from flame.


Fill your propane tanks now! Lines will be long once the storm approaches. If you have a big tank, have it filled regularly during the season. If you use small tanks, have two or even three full ones on hand.

When refilling, have supplier check for dents, damage, rust or leaks. At home, check hoses for leaks, kinks or deterioration.

If tank appears damaged after a storm, don’t use it.

Keep propane tanks outside the home, but secure them so they don’t become missiles during the storm.

Use and store propane cylinders outdoors in an upright position after the storm. Do not store spare tanks close to a hot grill.

Don’t tamper with supply lines or permanent connections.

Keep grill lid open until you’re sure it’s lit.

Always make sure valves and dials are shut tight on both grill and tank. Escaping propane fumes, easy to detect by their strong odor, are deadly to breathe in quantity and can explode. If you smell gas, clear the area and seek help.

Never smoke around propane! 

Checklist: Inside the home

Protect your family, home

Don’t call police, emergency or utility officials unless you have a life-threatening emergency.

If you must call loved ones, be brief to keep lines free.

Use cellphones sparingly. They may be the only working phones, and a limited number of cells will be operating.

Expect to redial several times before completing a cell call. If you find regular phone service is unsatisfactory, try your cellphone’s text messaging or walkie-talkie features.

Keep children away from debris or dangerous areas.

Plan to wear old clothes you don’t mind throwing away. They might well be stained or torn during cleanup.

Wear sturdy shoes, such as construction boots, if you have them. NEVER walk barefoot! The ground likely will be littered with broken glass and other sharp debris.

Watch your step. You easily can twist an ankle, or worse, and medical help likely won’t be easily available.

Wash hands regularly and treat injuries promptly. Wear construction gloves if available. You’ll be handling dirty and perhaps contaminated or even toxic materials.

Keep a flashlight handy. Even during the day you might be in dark spots.


If water remains in your house, try to rent or borrow a pump or bail by hand. Then shovel out mud, sand or silt. Disinfect floors.

Make only temporary repairs. Take photos of the damage before any repairs.

Hose off wet upholstered furniture to remove dirt. If plaster or plasterboard walls are wet, do not rub them. Let them dry, then brush off dirt and wash walls with a mild soap solution.

Wipe iron and steel furniture with a kerosene-soaked cloth to ward off rust.

Don’t throw out damaged papers or art. Professionals might be able to restore them.

Cleaning the fridge

Here’s how to do the deep cleaning and deodorizing needed to eliminate foul odors in the refrigerator or freezer:

You will need to clean deep to remove old food left behind and odor-causing bacteria lodged in the refrigerator’s fan, rubber seal, and air ducts.

Unplug the refrigerator again if the power’s back on. Don your rubber gloves and really clean it.

Remove every part of the fridge and freezer that’s removable — shelves, door trays, drawers and their gaskets and the drip pan under the refrigerator. Wash with pure soapy hot water; let air dry if possible.

For stuck-on food residue, use baking soda paste and water to scrub. Rinse with a 50/50 vinegar-water mix.

Scrub the interior of the unit, and include the gasket around the door, shelf and drawer gaskets and posts, using soapy water.

For a mild, stuffy odor, use a 50/50 vinegar-water solution to swab down the entire interior of the unit.

If you do not have power, prop open the doors; don’t seal it until you have power.

If the power is on again, close it, stuffed with the newspapers and with a shallow pan of vinegar on the bottom of the unit (put another in the freezer compartment). Leave for 12 hours, running, and then remove the newspapers and sniff again. If needed, repeat.

If a slight odor still remains in the freezer or fridge, lay newspaper on the bottom. Sprinkle unbrewed coffee grounds on the newspaper. Seal up the unit again, and check it after 12 hours.

If that still hasn’t worked, scrub the interior with a water-bleach solution (1 tablespoon household bleach to 1 gallon of water).

Use a spray bottle around the gaskets. If you have a drain in the freezer, pour 1/2 cup of this into it.

Rinse well with clear water, then do the vinegar scrub as above. Before sealing, set a plate of activated charcoal (used in aquariums) in the bottom of the unit. Leave for 12 hours and check again.

For particularly offensive odors (fish or spoiled meats), these procedures may need to be repeated up to three times before the smell is entirely gone.

NEVER USE: Toilet deodorizers, moth balls or flakes, laundry deodorizers, carpet deodorizers, pet deodorizers and other products that are not made to come in contact with food.

Kitchen flooding cleanup

Photograph the damage for insurance.

Throw out all food packages that were wet.

Wash unopened jars and cans in a solution of 1 tablespoon bleach to 2 gallons water. Dry thoroughly; label with permanent marker.

Do not plug in any electrical appliances that were wet — they are a fire hazard.

Avoid being victimized by contractors

Avoid being victimized by following these steps:

Don’t allow an unlicensed contractor to make repairs. Following a disaster declaration, anyone working as an unlicensed contractor is committing a third-degree felony.

Ask to see a contractor’s license before requesting a bid. Make sure the company name on the permit matches the name on the contract. The name on the license and on the insurance must match the roofer’s identification.

Call to make sure the contractor’s license is current. After a storm, the state may allow counties to issue temporary licenses for licensed roofing contractors from other states or Florida counties, but even temporary licenses should be verified. State- or county-certified general, building or residential contractors may also allowed to do limited re-roof work.

Ask to see a contractor’s liability and workers compensation insurance. Make sure both are in the name of the person doing the work and on the contract. You may have to pay for bids. Many roofers charge $50 to $125, but most will deduct the cost from the contract price. Don’t agree to obtain an owner/builder permit. It can be a signal that your contractor isn’t licensed.

Try to get two or three written bids. The bids should specify what work will be done, and the materials to be used. This may be difficult at a time when roofers are scarce. Be wary of low-ball bids or “limited-time offers.”

If your contractor insists on a down payment, it should be no more than 20 percent to 50 percent. Never pay in cash.

Read your contract carefully. Many contracts have escalation clauses which pass increasing costs of materials on to clients.

Know how much extra you’ll be expected to pay. Don’t sign a contract you don’t understand or which has blank spaces.

Check your permit before work begins. Make sure it specifies the same materials that are in your contract.

After work begins, check to be sure you’re getting what you’re paying — and are permitted — for.

Before making final payment, ask for a copy of the release of lien and certificate of completion. The release shows that suppliers and contractors have been paid and can’t place a lien on your property. The certificate shows a final inspection was made.


Do not climb onto the roof until you know it is stable and that there are no downed power lines on it or unstable tree limbs above it. If you do go on the roof, wear rubber-soled shoes with good grips. Make a note of broken tiles or shingles, bent metal flashing or other damage.

Inside, inspect your attic, walking only on the wooden supports. Look for leaks, cracked supports or broken tie-downs. A plastic tarp, nailed into place, will stop further leaks until repairs are made. Take pictures. Call your insurance company as soon as possible. 

Business help: Federal disaster loans

The U.S. Small Business Administration offers low-interest disaster loans to help firms and nonprofit groups recover after a storm.

The loan amount and terms depend on the size of the business, the extent of losses and ability to repay.

For details, go to

Are you a good neighbor?

The days following a storm can be a time of camaraderie between you and your neighbors. But it also can be a time of strife. Before letting tempers flare, keep in mind that we’re all in this together.

Assign people to check on neighbors, especially the elderly, until everyone’s accounted for.

If you’re alone, find companionship.

Share your meals. One of you has two dozen eggs, another a freezer full of snapper. Some have tanks with full grills and others don’t. Rather than waste perishable foods, have a neighborhood feast.

Pool everyone’s supply lists and send just one person to the store. This cuts down on traffic.

Heat and humidity add to stress and can shorten tempers. Understand that if your temper is short, it might just be the weather. Be patient. Cool off with a dip in the pool (if it’s healthy to do so), a cold drink or some quality time at the air conditioner.

Remember the Golden Rule.

Forget old disputes.

Don’t let new disputes boil over. Most damages will fall under “acts of God.” If you believe your neighbor is culpable for damage to your home or property, don’t fight it out in your front yard. Keep a cool head. Make sure to gather information, take photographs and preserve evidence. Call a lawyer when things calm down. Don’t call police unless necessary; they’ll be overwhelmed.

Help those less fortunate around you.

Keep perspective. You’re alive, and property can be replaced.

Be patient. Everyone’s trying as hard as they can to return life to normal.

Look for healthy escapes such as listening to music, playing games and sharing reading materials.

Sources: Florida International University; University of Florida; St. Mary’s Church, Pahokee

Schools: What parents can expect

If a storm is threatening, there’s a good chance schools will close - usually around the time a storm watch has been issued for the area.

School districts may send recorded telephone messages to students’ homes to say when schools will close and when they’ll reopen.

You also should monitor TV, radio and newspapers and school websites.

Schools might close a day or two before a storm’s landfall so they can be converted into shelters.

After the storm, classes might not immediately resume. After Wilma, some schools were closed for weeks.

Even if your child’s school is undamaged, if several others are inoperable, managers might opt to keep all schools closed to prevent a districtwide imbalance of school days.

It might take a while to repair the damage done to schools and clean up all the debris caused by the storm and by the people using the schools as shelters.

Some schools will be too damaged to use anytime soon and others will have to be converted or students shifted to other schools.

Some schools will have generators, but power will need to be restored.

Buses also might need to be repaired and roads they travel must be free of debris and have working traffic signals.

Chain saws: Be cautious

If you’ve never operated a chain saw, don’t start using one after a storm. Hire someone, ask neighbors or wait for emergency crews.

The time to learn how to use a chain saw is before the storm strikes. A dealer can help you pick the right saw, set it up and explain the proper use.

Always read instructions and warnings in the manual. A chain saw can kick, lurch, jump and snap back. You can be hurt or killed.

Never operate a chain saw with one hand. And don’t raise one above your shoulders.

For smaller jobs, you could use a cordless or gas-powered trimmer. Emergency or volunteer crews also will be coming through neighborhoods.

Without power, an electric chain saw will be worthless. Gas-powered models sell for $100 to $300. A saw with a 16-inch guide bar — the part extending from the saw body around which the chain is wrapped — is probably all you’ll need.

Look for safety features on chain saws such as a chain brake, which stops the chain if the saw hits something hard, or is pinched in the wood, and kicks back. All new models feature chains that reduce kickback; get them when you replace chains on old saws.

Wear goggles or safety glasses and a hard hat, plus gloves to prevent blisters and slippery grips.

Wear chaps or other sturdy reinforcement over pants.

Store gas outdoors, away from anything that can ignite it. Never store in garage or home. Move the saw at least 10 feet from the gas before you start it up.

Engine oil: Most saws use two-cycle engines that require you to mix gasoline with proper oil and in the proper ratio.

Bar and chain oil: A lubricant that keeps the chain from freezing up or breaking during heavy work. Buy it and two-cycle engine oil now; they will be hard to find after a storm.

Consumer Product Safety Commission:

Take steps to save trees on your property

You may be able to save smaller trees of less than 10-inch diameter that are down or partially blown over.

Cover their roots (but not with plastic) and keep the tiny root hairs wet until they can be uprighted. Don’t cut roots still in the ground.

With shade gone, plant tissues heat up in the afternoon, causing sunburn. A cooling spray of water in the late afternoon will help cool them down. Stake trees securely.

Give your tree some ‘sunscreen.’ Its leaves are like clothes. Without them, trees begin to suffer from sun scald (an arboreal version of sunburn).

Pile brush, soil, a tarp or sphagnum moss on trunk and major limbs. For small trees, try splitting a length of plastic pipe lengthwise and sliding it onto the trunk.

Securing the tree

Set the tree in soil at the same level it was before the storm. Dig a hole slightly larger than the root ball. Fill it with water.

Pull up the tree using a cloth sling or the backs of several friends. (Don’t use wires, chains or cables that may snap, injuring bystanders.)

Tamp in soil around roots while spraying with full pressure of garden hose to eliminate air pockets. Back fill with soil from the site. Keep watering until all bubbles cease.

Stake trees securely.

Pruning and fertilizing

Concentrate on salvageable trees. It’s a waste of effort to try to save large trees with split trunks or broken main limbs.

Prune downed trees heavily to compensate for root damage and reduce a tree’s weight to stand it up. Remove damaged or dangling limbs, using the “three-cut method” for big limbs. Don’t “hatrack” trees. Not only is it illegal, but it eventually creates top-heavy trees that will go down more easily in the next storm. Always try to prune back to an area of the tree where a smaller, lateral limb has sprouted.

Leave broken and dangling palm fronds, if possible. If trimming is necessary, cut them in half and see if the palm recovers. 

This also will reduce the tree’s need for water and nutrients while recovering. Remember, even brown and broken fronds are still providing food for the tree. It may take six months for new growth to emerge, and up to two years before palms have a full canopy again. Without sufficient rainfall, recovering palms will need to be watered three times a week for six weeks.

With other trees, trim the canopy back by one-half to two-thirds to reduce water loss. Always trim back to healthy tissue, using sharp, clean implements.

Don’t use pruning or wound paint. Treating a tree’s wound with copper fungicide, however, may help prevent fungus.

After a month, fertilize lightly, making sure the mix has potassium and magnesium. Spray palm buds with fungicide to prevent bud rot.

Fallen branches

Do not be quick to remove fallen branches or palm fronds, which provide shade while plants acclimate to a suddenly sunny garden.

Fallen leaves should be removed as fast as possible. They quickly form a rotting mat that blocks light from plants and grass beneath, and encourages the growth of fungus.

Keep in mind that it could be weeks before downed limbs and other vegetation is picked up.

Remember, no matter how bad the storm, almost everything grows back.

— Barbara Marshall

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