PENDER COUNTY — Low-lying areas of Pender County were hit hard by the floodwaters of Hurricane Florence. Now, more than seven months after the storm, a nonprofit recovery group is alarmed by cases of respiratory sickness in Maple Hill, a low-income community near the county’s northeast border.
Jennifer Witkowski, founder of the Pender Long Term Recovery Group (LTRG), said her team of volunteer caseworkers noticed a pattern of residents reporting “severe respiratory issues, which we believe may be related to mold.”
“[Caseworkers] were noticing a trend in this specific area of Maple Hill, about a mile radius, where everyone had similar symptoms — a lot of respiratory problems,” Witkowski said.
‘We just don’t know’
In late March, Witkowski sent a list of residents reporting health issues “likely linked to mold in their homes” to Pender County Health Department Director Carolyn Moser. The list included two residents who died in a span of two days who “had some sort of sudden onset of respiratory symptoms.”
While Witkowski is still examining the death certificates of the two residents in question, Moser said the records revealed causes of death that suggested mold was not a factor.
“There was nothing that would have indicated they were mold-related,” Moser said.
She also said that her environmental health office has not reported any unusual patterns of mold-related health issues — in Maple Hill or in other areas of the county that were flooded by Florence.
“We’re hearing second, third-party information, so it’s hard to verify anything,” Moser said. “We have not seen any complaints from individuals to an extreme to make us concerned that we have a big issue. I think there’s mold all across this county. If anybody knows Pender County, whether you’re at the beach, whether you’re in the low-lying areas — which the county is full of — everybody is going to end up with mold, especially post-hurricane.”
Although Moser acknowledged a connection between mold and health issues, particularly increased symptoms of respiratory problems, she said there was not enough information — how mold had been treated post-hurricane and whether it existed before the hurricane, for instance — to make a determination.
“I’m not saying mold isn’t a cause of being sick, but I’m not saying that it is. We just don’t know,” Moser said. “We don’t have enough information. And if those individuals have concerns, they need to call us or call their doctors.”
Difficulty identifying mold-related health issues
Witkowski said one underlying issue is the difficulty of identifying a mold-related health problem because of an overlap with the seasonal flu season and the geographic isolation of the Maple Hill community, which extends into Onslow County. As a result, Witkowski thinks residents with mold-related respiratory problems are going to clinicians in Duplin, Onslow, Pender, and New Hanover counties.
“If they all came to one doctor, the doctor would say, ‘We need to do something,'” Witkowski said. “But I think it’s split up among so many clinicians that no one’s realizing it’s a trend.”
She also believes there is a tendency by the government and donor community to overlook lower-income communities like Maple Hill. She pointed to the post-hurricane response in the flooded Cross Creek subdivision in Hampstead.
“After the disaster at Cross Creek, there were hundreds of thousands of dollars that came out because people who had access to social media, people who worked jobs in wealthier networks — they got immediate help,” Witkowski said. “In Maple Hill, there are still houses that need to be mucked and gutted.”
A third key component that exacerbates the issue, according to Witkowski, is the lack of awareness among residents on how to properly eradicate mold in their homes. Often this involves stripping a house to its studs, something she said many are unwilling to do because they cannot afford an alternative place to live. Others did not receive transitional housing from FEMA because they did not qualify or they were unsure of what FEMA’s benefits included.
Moser believes her office has done what it can to educate residents of the county on the risks of mold and how to eradicate it.
“I feel like we’ve done our due diligence as far as looking at things and having the information available to any homeowners and business owners,” Moser said. “We’ve explained exactly how you can get rid of it.”
Mark Darrough can be reached at Mark@Localvoicemedia.com