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Lexington man volunteers to help Houston rebuild from hurricane

Article originally sourced from Wicked Local Somerville

"For Lexington resident Hari Polansky, a recent trip to Houston to volunteer in post-hurricane clean up work remediating mold contamination--work that continues even today--were “hardest working days of my life.”

Disasters dominated late summer news. Hurricane Harvey dropped almost fifty inches of rain in the Houston area, which has grown to three times the size of Chicago, covering flood plains that formerly moved water from prairie to sea. Hurricanes Irma and Maria followed in Florida and Puerto Rico. Wildfires destroyed almost two million acres in the west. Two earthquakes, 4.5 and 7.1 on the Richter scale, struck Mexico.

“People offered moral support and made donations. I did the same,” said Polansky. “But the more I heard about the damage done and the people’s needs, the more I wanted to do.”

So Polansky applied to the Red Cross online, listing his skills, objectives and location preferences.

“They did a background check and conducted a phone interview. It was encouraging to know that volunteers there are carefully vetted,” Polansky said. “Some Red Cross opportunities require a minimal time commitment, or engage volunteers on a first-come, first-serve basis. I had to plan around family and work. I needed a volunteer position that matched my available time.”

Then, he learned that his son’s brother-in-law was a Houston team leader for Massachusetts-based All Hands and Hearts, a disaster relief organization that engages volunteers all over the world. Polansky found his chance to be more proactive, and accepted a volunteer posting on a mold remediation team in Houston.

In mid-November, he made his way to Texas and reported to the church that served as headquarters as well as shelter for about 100 volunteers. The church basement provided bare, basic facilities and sleeping quarters. Additional day workers arrived by 7:30 each morning.

Each of Polansky’s days in Houston--he was there a little less than a week--began with team leaders assuring that each van of five to eight volunteers had moisture meters, vacuums, tools such as crowbars and saws, mold-killing fungicide, protective suits and masks, as well as headgear for all volunteers and water for hydration breaks.

“As I looked at all the precautions, I came to understand that mold spores, especially toxins in black mold, can cause illness and even organ damage,” Polansky said. “So appropriate safeguards for mold removal are critical. We were covered from head to toe: goggles, headgear, protective suits, respirators, gloves--all this in 85 degrees of humid Houston air.”

On Polansky’s first morning out, he asked one young man how difficult the work was. “I’m not gonna lie to you,” the man replied, “it’s really hard, but we all look after each other.”

Mold may be visible. Moisture may not. Excessive dampness hinders fungicide absorption. Teams began with meter readings to determine water content and that guided what had to be torn out and helped assess when or if the structural components were dry enough for fungicide.

“The house we worked on had been completely submerged in water,” Polansky said. “There was extensive mold on ceilings, walls, doors--everywhere.”

The volunteers suited up in the Texas heat and began to demolish the moldy interior, from floor to roof, working 10-hour days. They stopped for essential water breaks every half hour to avoid dehydration, and for a lunch break.

“We were a diverse group,” said Polansky, “with people from 20 to 70 years old.

One woman was from the Czech Republic, another worker was from Nebraska, one from Houston. A couple that was traveling the world took a break in their tour to volunteer.

Polanksy said that the hard work and shared commitment bonded the group. “We were a team trying remove the dangers that would keep people from returning to their homes,” he said. “We were tearing down walls, breaking through ceilings, toting out endless amounts of resulting rubbish. The circumstances and effort fostered a powerful sense of closeness.”

“One neighborhood family had returned to their home and stopped to talk with us. The parents felt the house was ‘dry enough’ and a little bleach and a coat of paint would be sufficient,” Polansky explained. “Our team leader urged them to let him assess the water content--and then urged them to seek aid. The level of moisture and mold made the house unsafe.”

The next day, the family came by with cookies for the volunteers and reported that they would seek disaster assistance. “We were relieved for them,” said Polanksy. “What we learned as we sweated through those long days may have saved their lives.”"

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