The Slow Deaths of Katrina’s Houses

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The house smelled rotten. Blades of the living room ceiling fan drooped. Black circles of mold climbed the walls and ceilings. Every door was off its hinges. The roof was caved in.

The buzzing from a hive of bees was the only sound in the house.

Family portraits once hung on the walls and in this kitchen Sunday dinner was prepared.

Now the house is dead.

Evidence of Hurricane Katrina lingers across New Orleans through the thousands of abandoned homes still standing nearly five years after the disaster. Homes that have yet to be renovated are running out of time, according to Michael Gurtler, president of Gurtler Bros. Consultants Inc., a New Orleans home inspection company. He estimates that, without intervention, they will collapse in another three to five years.

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According to Gurtler, any damage to the building envelope, which consists of the roof, walls, windows and doors, will result in a domino effect of damages. Wind and the results of the saturating combination of salt water, fresh water and oil in Katrina will continually weaken the structure.

Deterioration begins with roof damage.

The roof covering is damaged by winds that loosen nails and cause shingles to blow away. Shingles should last 20 to 30 years, but in a tropical climate the lifespan decreases to 16 to 25 years, Gurtler said. Nails rust after years of neglect and water “When the roof starts to lift it creates other failures,” Gurtler said. “The roof is anchored to the walls, walls to the foundation, and foundation to the earth, so everything is tied together.” Roof damage creates water intrusion, causing electrical connections, appliances, wood and drywall to become wet. Drywall, the material used to build walls, absorbs water like a sponge and crumbles when wet.

The second step in the deterioration process is caused by sitting in floodwaters.

“Our houses suffered a different kind of flood; it didn’t come in and right back out,” Gurtler explained. Sitting waters promote mold growth.

During a residential mold inspection by the pest-control service Orkin and the National Center for Healthy Housing (NCHH) conducted in the Lower Ninth Ward in 2006, two types of mold, Cladosporium and Aspergillus were common found. Aspergillus, or black mold, thrives on wet wood in humid and tropical climates, making New Orleans homes particularly attractive. The common architectural style of a New Orleans home is an all-wood structure. Water causes wood to weaken and expand. Mold also consumes wood like a termite.

The condition of a house before Katrina is also important. For example, black mold grows on paper. If a home had never been stripped, there would have already been mold on the drywall, which is made of sand, gypsum and heavy paper.

Don Tavlin, NCHH’s assistant region manager of Louisiana and Mississippi, said he witnessed mold on drywall after removing framework and carpet from a house.

The interior structure of a house begins to rot when studs, structural members that hold up the roof, are attacked by mold and water.

Also, termite activity is promoted through roof leaks, in addition to five years of humidity and rainfall.

“Mold damage, termites and rot weaken the structure of a house until a thunderstorm blows it down,” Gurtler said. “But, if you have had a water leak for 10 years, you’re in danger of collapsing soon.” Rats, raccoons, water moccasins and wild dogs found living in properties can also add to the deterioration process.

“Any building neglected for several years will collapse,” Gurtler said. “If a tree doesn’t fall on it first.”

By Myeisha Essex

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