Wearing goggles, gloves, galoshes and a mask, Veronica Randazzo lasted only 10 minutes inside her home in St. Bernard Parish (search). Her eyes burned, her mouth filled with a salty taste and she felt nauseous. Her 26-year-old daughter, Alicia, also covered in gear, came out coughing.
"That mold," she said. "It smells like death."
Mold now forms an interior version of kudzu (search) in the soggy South, posing health dangers that will make many homes tear-downs and will force schools and hospitals to do expensive repairs.
It's a problem that any homeowner who has ever had a flooded basement or a leaky roof has faced. But the magnitude of this problem leaves many storm victims prey to unscrupulous or incompetent remediators. Home test kits for mold, for example, are worthless, experts say.
Don't expect help from insurance companies, either. Most policies were revised in the last decade to exclude mold damage because of "sick building" lawsuits alleging illnesses. Although mold's danger to those with asthma (search) or allergies is real, there's little or no science behind other claims, and a lot of hype.
"We went through a period when people were really irrational about the threat posed by the mere sight of mold in their homes," said Nicholas Money, a mold expert from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and author of "Carpet Monsters and Killer Spores," a book about mold.
"If you give me 10 minutes in anybody's home, I'll find mold growth somewhere," he said.
Mold is everywhere. Most people have no problem living with this ubiquitous fungus. It reproduces by making spores, which travel unseen through the air and grow on any moist surface, usually destroying it as the creeping crud grows.
Mold can't be eliminated but can be controlled by limiting moisture, which is exactly what couldn't be done after Hurricane Katrina. Standing water created ideal growth conditions and allowed mold to penetrate so deep that experts fear that even studs of many homes are saturated and unsalvageable.
In fact, New Orleans is where mold's health risks were first recognized.
A Louisiana State University allergist, the late Dr. John Salvaggio, described at medical meetings in the 1970s what he called "New Orleans asthma," an illness that filled hospital emergency rooms each fall with people who couldn't breathe. He linked it to high levels of mold spores that appeared in the humid, late summer months.
"These are potent allergens," but only for people who have mold allergies, said Dr. Jordan Fink, a Medical College of Wisconsin professor and past president of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
Molds produce irritants that can provoke coughing, and some make spores that contain toxins, which further irritate airways.
"The real pariah is this thing called Stachybotrys chartarum. This organism produces a greater variety of toxins and in greater concentrations than any other mold that's been studied," Money said.
Doctors at Cleveland's Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital blamed it for a cluster of cases of pulmonary hemorrhage, or bleeding into the lungs, that killed several children in the 1990s, but the link was never proved.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there is no firm evidence linking mold to the lung problem, memory loss or other alleged woes beyond asthma and allergy. However, the sheer amount of it in the South could trigger problems for some people who haven't had them before, medical experts said.
"The child who didn't have a significant problem before may be in a much different scenario now," said Dr. Michael Wasserman, a pediatrician at Ochsner Clinic in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie whose office and home were flooded and are now covered in mold. He plans to tear down his house.
Even dead mold can provoke asthma in susceptible people, meaning that places open to the public — restaurants, schools, businesses — must eliminate it.
This is most true for hospitals, where mold spores can cause deadly lung diseases in people with weak immune systems or organ transplants. Such concerns already led Charity Hospital's owners to mothball it.
Tulane University Hospital and Clinic's cleanup is expected to take months.
"The first floor's got pretty much mold. It's going to be pretty much a total loss," said Ron Chatagnier, project coordinator for C&B Services, a Texas company hired by the hospital's owner, HCA.
"It might be difficult or impossible to reopen some of these medical centers," said Joe Cappiello, an official with the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations.
"It's not just the physical destruction that you see," but ventilation systems and ductwork full of mold, ready "to seed the rest of the hospital with spores" if the heat or air conditioning were turned on, he said.
As for houses, "anything that's been submerged probably will be a tear-down," said Jeffrey May, a Boston-area building inspector, chemist and book author who has investigated thousands of buildings for mold problems.
Clothes can be washed or dry cleaned, but most furniture is a loss. Ditto for carpeting, insulation, wallpaper and drywall, which no longer lives up to its name. Mattresses that didn't get wet probably have mold if they were in a room that did.
"Anything with a cushion you can forget about," May said.
The general advice is the same as when food is suspected of being spoiled: when in doubt, throw it out.
When is professional help needed?
"It's simply a matter of extent. If you've got small areas of mold, just a few square feet, it's something a homeowner can clean with 10 percent bleach," said Anu Dixit, a fungus expert at Saint Louis University.
She studied mold after the Mississippi River floods in 1993 and 1994, and found cleaning measures often were ineffective, mainly because people started rebuilding too soon, before the surrounding area was completely dry.
In the New Orleans suburb of Lakeview, Toby Roesler found a water line 7 feet high on his home and mold growing in large black and white colonies from every wall and ceiling on the first floor.
Wearing goggles, a mask and rubber gloves, he sprayed down the stairwell with a bleach solution. A crew will arrive soon to gut the lower floor.
"I think it's salvageable," he said, but admitted, "It's going to be some gross work to get it ready."
Others won't try.
Dionne Thiel, who lives next door to the Randazzo family, was only 7 when Hurricane Betsy raced through her neighborhood 40 years ago. Returning on Monday, after Hurricane Katrina, something was instantly familiar.
"The mold and the water," she said. "It's the exact same smell."
Mold covered her dining room walls, snaked up doorframes and even found its way into the candles she sold for a living. She and her husband salvaged his golf clubs but left the rest. They'll move to Arizona.
"I would never want to live here again," said her husband, Don Thiel. "It's not going to be safe."