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After levees break, doomed houses
San Francisco Chronicle


August 31, 2005

When the floodwaters recede, the power is restored and the streets cleaned of debris, hurricane-ravaged New Orleans will have to brace for the next wave of destruction - the wrecking ball.

Much of the historic city, flanked by Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River, is under water because of a pair of levee breaks caused by Hurricane Katrina. Experts predict that few of the homes and buildings that have been inundated will be salvageable.

"They probably will have to be stripped to their framing, treated for mold and then rebuilt," said Martin King, technical adviser to the Association of Specialists in Cleaning and Restoration, located in Maryland.

If the structures are not professionally dried out within the next 48 hours, the chances of saving them are slim, said King, a certified restorer who lives in Virginia.

With the water still rising, prospects for making that two-day deadline were bleak.

Peter Carkhuff of Property Damage Experts, a New Jersey company that specializes in assessing salvageability of waterlogged homes, said he had a truck and trailer ready to head to the Gulf Coast. But he knows it could be days or even weeks before his crews will be able to start work. And then it will probably be too late, he said.

"Mold will take hold," Carkhuff said. "And a lot of these homes are going to have to be leveled."

He said the situation was worsened by the fact that New Orleans was being flooded by "black water," which carries sewage, sludge and bacteria.

"This isn't the tub overflowing or even rainwater," Carkhuff said. "This is grossly unsanitary."

Food, cosmetics, children's toys and mattresses will have to be thrown out immediately, said Mark Decherd of Dryout Inc., a Florida firm that cleans and rehabilitates flooded structures.

At least 150 people have called Dryout from Louisiana and Mississippi to be put on a waiting list, Decherd said.

He expects that when his crews get there, all they will be able to save is clothing, bedspreads, linens and in some instances draperies, with a good dry cleaning. The "black water" flooding more than likely trashed carpets, rugs, laminated flooring and cabinetry, he said.

Drywall and plaster are especially at risk in high-humidity climates such as the Gulf Coast.

"The insides of walls are perfect breeding grounds for bacteria," Decherd said. "There is thinking in the industry that the spore of mold starts germinating in the first three hours."

Molds, which produce allergens, irritants and sometimes toxic substances, are health hazards. Research has shown that inhaling or coming into contact with mold or mold spores may cause allergic reactions, including hay fever, sneezing, runny noses, skin rashes and bloodshot eyes. Exposure to mold can also irritate the throat and lungs.

Decherd's company uses infrared thermal imaging to establish how much moisture has collected behind drywall and plaster to determine whether a building is salvageable. Sometimes, he said, all that can be saved of a flooded home is its concrete foundation.

Carkhuff agreed, saying he expected that the flooding in New Orleans had destroyed most of the worst-hit homes' appliances. Systems such as heating, ventilation and air conditioning are probably shot, he said, and electrical wiring most likely has also been compromised.

Plumbing pipes usually hold up to flooding, King said. But fixtures including bathtubs, sinks and toilets will probably have to be ripped out so that the floors and walls can be replaced, he said.

King said upholstered furniture would be nearly impossible to clean. But windows, doors and tiles set in mortar beds usually stand up well to flooding.

He said historical homes had a better chance than modern houses of surviving water damage.

"The wood is older and more weathered, and the structures tend to be sounder," he said.

Some building materials stand up well to water, King said, such as concrete, stone, brick, porcelain, ceramic and glass.

But King warned, "Even materials impervious to water damage can be destroyed by the subfloor buckling or the roof caving in."


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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