More than 10 Ponsonby homeowners forced out of their houses when a school fire spread asbestos through the neighbourhood, say they have been left to deal with the fallout on their own.
And days after telling residents to leave their homes, authorities have offered no further updates, even when pressed by the Herald.
Sheehan St resident Jane Sundstrum was among those unsure as to when she could safely return home.
She earlier rushed out of the house on Tuesday when central Auckland’s Ponsonby Intermediate School erupted in a “ferocious” blaze a few doors down.
The fire flared in the school’s roof with billowing smoke potentially carrying asbestos up to 100m down Sheehan St.
Public health officials subsequently doorknocked and dropped leaflets at nearby homes, warning that while the risk was likely very low, residents were advised to move out until their properties had been “remediated”.
“It has been determined that asbestos was present in the roof of the fire-affected building, and that the fire spread some fragments of the roof material to neighbouring Sheehan [St] properties, including yours,” the letter, dated December 9, read.
“Please be reassured that while asbestos is known to have damaging health effects, this occurs only after high levels of exposure over long periods of time. As this was a one-off incident, and the asbestos fibres are contained within the roofing material, we consider the public health risk to be very low.
“However, we do recommend that, as the resident/s of an affected property, you follow the advice provided today to seek alternative accommodation while your property is remediated. It is especially important children and pets are kept away from affected areas.”
All households downwind from the fire were also recommended to take precautions including wearing masks while cleaning, wiping down affected areas, and even bagging and binning grass clippings.
They were also told the Ministry of Education would be ensuring the safety of the school site and street.
Yet since that initial contact, residents had not been approached by any other official health or education spokesperson that they could liaise with or seek advice from, Sundstrum said.
That had bred confusion with some residents going back in and out of their homes, while others stayed elsewhere and brought in insurance assessors to check for contamination.
Meanwhile, workers cleaning up the school had told residents the contamination was bad, Sundstrum said.
“It’s like Chernobyl, they are wearing full white gowns and suits and here we are walking around with just ourselves – no masks, no nothing,” she said.
“And it’s 20m away from us.”
She said residents had been banding together wanting clearer health directions on the risks and for one spokesperson to collaborate on behalf of the school, Auckland Council and health officials.
“It would be great for someone to say, ‘Hey guys, it’s not your fault you live on this street, we take full ownership and will do our utmost to help and compensate all of you’,” she said.
“But none of that has happened, and it’s been a major frustration.”
A spokeswoman for Auckland Regional Public Health (ARPH) said after health teams doorknocked and dropped letters at nearby homes, questions about the clean-up and liaisons with residents were better directed to the Ministry of Education.
That was because the asbestos was located on school property.
Ministry head of education infrastructure Kim Shannon said the building had now been demolished and asbestos removal specialists would continue clean-up work over the next week.
The school was closed for the year and they were working with the school on temporary accommodation needs for the new year.
“We have offered the principal additional support for their staff and students if they need,” she said.
But in response to questions around what was being done to prevent asbestos risk to neighbouring residents, Shannon only referred to the previous work done by ARPH, and offered no further advice.
With initial stress of the fire breaking out and now Christmas bearing down, some elderly residents had been left anxious and panicked, Sundstrum said.
For her part, Sundstrum had her carpets cleaned on Tuesday morning and was trying to dry them out with all her home’s doors and windows open when the fire started just after 4pm.
With the fire flaring so quickly she became panicked about her 7-year-old son, who was having skateboard lessons on the Ponsonby Intermediate grounds.
After failing to reach her son through the school grounds due to the heavy smoke, she returned home and called her husband for help.
That left the inside of her home exposed to billowing smoke and asbestos for more than 10 minutes before she closed all the windows and rushed through sidestreets to the other side of the school to find her son.
Sundstrum had since had an insurance assessor through the home, who confirmed the house’s exterior was contaminated with asbestos.
The interior was yet to be assessed and it was unknown how long the whole process would take, she said.
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