Mold performs an important task by breaking down dead grass, leaves and trees, but the fungus doesn't turn off its destructive power when it encounters man.
And so dozens of homes up and down the Missouri River face mold infestation as floodwater recedes. Many thousands of others in Nebraska, Iowa and nationwide experience mold problems each year because of leaks and plumbing flaws.
Mold not only chomps slowly away at many building materials, but it triggers allergy and asthma reactions and even worse in some people. Experts give somewhat varying directions on the degree of protection needed when removing mold, but they agree that mold shouldn't be sniffed at.
"It's something that you respect, and you don't mess around with it," said Carroll Welte, a Burt County-based University of Nebraska-Lincoln extension educator.
Bob Paul respects mold from a previous experience with it. The fungus has invaded his house near the Missouri River twice now. The first time, just after he bought the place about eight years ago, he found that mold had taken up residence in an area where a pipe had once broken.
His wife, Jane, broke out in such an intense rash that her doctor thought she had run into poison ivy. Jane Paul also suffered major respiratory problems for which she needed breathing treatments, where a machine forced medication into her lungs.
Physicians eventually discovered that she had had an intense reaction to mold in the house.
"So I've gutted this house once already," Bob Paul said during a tour of his residence. The Pauls live in the Harbor 671 area, a group of river homes east of Tekamah, Neb. The approximately 50 houses and mobile homes in the area, which is next to a Missouri River inlet, suffered extensive damage in the flood.
Floodwater deposited silt and mud in homes, yards and roads throughout Harbor 671. It also left mold in many homes.
Bob Paul said floodwater stood only about 6 inches high in his house, but mold of various hues — black, gray, green, white — splotches the walls and ceiling in grotesque circles and swaths.
Jane Paul knows not to spend much time in the house, so she recently hustled through it to see the damage. She covered her face with her shirt but came away with a raspy voice from the exposure.
Dr. Susanna Von Essen, a lung specialist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, said 20 percent of people are allergic to something, including mold. Mold can be harder on asthmatics. The fungus also can cause hypersensitivity pneumonitis, a rare disease that can scar the lungs and may require steroid treatments and oxygen, sometimes permanently.
"How much (mold) is too much? I don't think anybody really knows," Von Essen said.
Mold occurs naturally, especially in damp regions and places. The humidity of Iowa and eastern Nebraska creates good conditions for mold, said Shawn Shouse, agricultural engineer with Iowa State University extension and outreach.
"It's not a question of whether you have mold," Shouse said. The question is how much you have.
Molds reproduce through microscopic spores that float through the air. When they land on moist areas, spores multiply and cause an indoor mold problem to grow more severe.
Some agencies say a mold problem that is 10-by-10 feet calls for a professional contractor's assistance. Welte said, however, that many victims of the flood won't be able to afford a contractor and will take on the mold themselves.
Recommendations vary on how to take care of mold problems in buildings and how much protective wear is necessary. But most agree that a person working in mold-saturated areas should wear an N-95 mask or a respirator. Most also recommend that a person wear rubber gloves, long pants and long-sleeved shirts that may need to be discarded.
Bob Paul understands how big a job a major mold-removal project can be. He tore out chunks of his home eight years ago to remedy the previous mold problem — flooring, sub-floor, some of the wall studs, all of the drywall and insulation.
Over the past few years, the Pauls upgraded the modular home, adding rooms, getting the lawn in shape, planting roses and evergreen shrubs. Bob Paul, a Blair, Neb., postal clerk who also remodels houses, had his home, which is out in the country on a usually pretty body of water, the way he wanted it.
He, his family and friends celebrated his 60th birthday in May. Then the Missouri River rambled over its banks and sloshed water, mud, muck and thick silt over the neighborhood. The fast-moving water put a neighbor's boat into the Pauls' fence. The water tore loose boat decks. It killed trees and bushes. And it deposited mold in houses.
The pungent, earthy odor of mold is thick in the Pauls' house. Mold is on the floor, walls and ceiling. A small toad moved into a guest bedroom. A green mold rests on the wall on which they had stenciled the words: "Family . where life begins and love never ends."
They stayed in a daughter's camper for a while and now are renting in Tekamah.
Bob Paul hasn't received a verdict from his insurance company, but he's ready to call his home a total loss. "I can't do it again," he said of rebuilding. "I won't. I'm too old."
Contact the writer: