Flooding leaves refugee family with moldy apartment

Olomwene stands in his backyard to get a breath of fresh air. The apartment still smells strongly of mold, even though the family has been using diluted bleach to clean the walls and doors.

By Katherine Lewin | gargoyle@flagler.edu

When the apartment floods, the water comes down the hill behind their home. Fanuel Olomwene and Moise Olomwene standing in their backyard.

Olomwene Emedi turns the key in the door to his apartment. He doesn’t know what he will find inside, but he figures it will be wet.

It’s slightly less than 48 hours since Hurricane Irma swept through Jacksonville, Florida, causing historic flooding the city has not seen since the 1800s.

He glances over his shoulder at his family waiting silently behind him. The seven of them have already been through so much–they spent over a decade in a refugee camp in Tanzania after fleeing violence in their home country, the Republic of the Congo. Only seven months earlier, they were finally granted admission into the U.S.

With the help of the Refugee Resettlement Program at the Diocese of St. Augustine, this past spring they found an apartment in Jacksonville that could fit all of them. But so far, their time in the apartment has been plagued with problems. Most notably, significant flooding in their living room and kitchen when there are severe thunderstorms.

According to Renee Sares, a caseworker at the Refugee Resettlement Program at Catholic Charities in Jacksonville, the company responsible for managing the apartment complex, Team Real Estate Management, has already shown themselves to be less than helpful.

Olomwene pushes the door open to the apartment and is immediately hit with a strong, musty odor – a telltale sign of mold. He steps inside and feels his heart sink. As he had feared, the living room and kitchen is flooded with several inches of water and the carpet is soaked – again.

His wife, Ebinda Sango, is holding their one-year-old son, Theo Emedi, in her arms. His other four children: Fanuel Olomwene, 17, Sango Alinoti, 16, Abethie Muene, 13, and Moise Olomwene, 8, file in behind their father.

(from left to right) Olomwene Emedi, Moise Olomwene, Theo Emedi, Ebinda Sango, Sango Alinoti, Abethie Muene and Fanuel Olomwene.

For the next several hours, the family uses bowls to try and scoop the water out of the apartment. Olomwene goes to the apartment complex’s office to let someone know the apartment has flooded again, but no one is there. No help would come from Team Real Estate until Friday, Sept. 15.

“It wasn’t until Friday that the apartment complex actually brought a fan in to at least attempt to dry the carpet out, and by then we all knew that it was too late and the mold was growing,” said Renee Sares, the caseworker who has been helping Olomwene and his family. “I went to the apartment complex managers on Thursday myself and went back again on Friday, begging for help, and I was categorically told absolutely no, they would not move him to another apartment, and no, they would not remove the carpet, and I was told that the tenant absolutely could not remove the carpet either.”

According to Sares, Team Real Estate initially claimed that they would bring in someone to clean the carpet, but up to the date of publication of this article, the carpet has not been cleaned. The only assistance provided was a fan to attempt to dry out the fabric. Sares says that cleaning the carpet would only have been useful if it had been done immediately following the flooding.

“We all knew that it was too late to clean the carpet because the mold had set in. I first saw the mold myself on the 20th of September. That was also the day that I took Olomwene to Jacksonville Legal Aid to see if we could find an attorney willing to help us with this case,” Sares said.

Sares took this photo with her iPhone when she visited Olomwene and his family on Sept. 20. Black mold can be seen growing up the back door and along the bottom.

Under threat of a possible lawsuit, Team Real Estate Management recently relented. They now say that Olomwene could replace the carpet himself. Replacing the carpet will cost the family thousands of dollars that they do not have.

Olomwene and his family could break their lease early and attempt to find a new place to live. But even with the frequent flooding and holes underneath the kitchen cabinets where water drains, the property management company will not back down on any fees for ending the lease. It would cost the family $3,731 to move out of their current apartment that is not considered inhabitable, according to Florida health codes, and move into a new one.

Underneath the cabinets in the kitchen, the wooden planks have warped and come out of place, likely from several instances of flooding. Olomwene says that when the apartment floods, water drains out of this hold underneath the cabinet.

According to the 2017 Florida Statutes of civil practice and procedure between a landlord and tenant, the landlord has to maintain the property up to the requirements of basic codes and make sure the common areas are clean and safe. Neither the property management company responsible nor the owner of the apartment could be reached for comment.

Sares is exploring every possible avenue to try and help Olomwene and his family. She filed a complaint with the City of Jacksonville Code Enforcement Division on Sept. 18. She was told it would be at least a two-week wait for an inspector to look at the property. Up to the date of publication of this article, no inspector has followed up.

“We still live in pretty much the same situation, breathing the same air with the same problem coming from the carpet,” Olomwene said. “We are living there helplessly and hopelessly.”

Olomwene stands in his backyard to get a breath of fresh air. The apartment still smells strongly of mold, even though the family has been using diluted bleach to clean the walls and doors.

Theo, the youngest child, stands outside with his family. His mother and father are especially concerned for his health, since he is at home the most breathing the musty air.


Update, Oct. 11, 2017: Due to an outpouring of support after the publication of this article, Olomwene and his family are soon moving into a new apartment free of mold and flooding.


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