The Hoarding Disorder Resource and Training Group

Easing the emotional, psychological, social,
financial, and legal effects of Hoarding Disorder.

USA TODAY highlights The Hoarding Disorder Institute

Lorraine Ash, USA TODAY

When Hurricane Sandy dumped its fury on New Jersey last October, it also exposed a problem many say has been growing here for years: hoarding.

"Usually hoarders won't allow people in their houses," said David Haggerty, director of senior services for Family Service of Morris County, a Morristown-based human services non-profit.

"But after the storm hit, many had no choice but to allow professionals like fire and emergency workers access," he added. "So a lot of cases of hoarding came out of the woodwork."

Storm remediation is at a standstill in homes of hoarders, experts say, because, hurricane or no hurricane, hoarders still don't want to clean up their hoards.

Two Family Service intensive senior support care managers, Susan Donald and Laura Wrublevski, explained the stalemate: the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is asking hoarders to clean out their stuff so it can bring in people to remediate mold and other flood-related conditions.

"At the same time," Wrublevski said, "there isn't support to help hoarders sit, sort and pare down their hoards."

"That's the problem right now," Donald explained. "FEMA, or other groups willing to help people affected by Sandy, have a role to play. Their role is not to clean up a home that has been collecting for 30 or 40 years. Their role is to take care of the damage as a result of Sandy."

In Morris County, Family Service has taken the lead on identifying hoarding because it has extensive case management programs that connect with people in the community, Haggerty said. It also offers trainings in how to handle hoarding for community professionals.

"Hoarding is a trend of epidemic proportions, and everyone wants information on how to make it better," Donald said.

But not every region in the state can say the same.

Enter The Hoarding Disorder Institute, a private company serving all of New Jersey that opens this week. Its founder is Marcie Cooper of Fair Lawn, a social worker, educator, and geriatric care manager already known for leading training sessions on hoarding to those who encounter it in a professional capacity.

Her institute also will offer myriad services, including public education forums, resource directories of trained professionals, workshops for the loved ones of hoarders, and relocation and respite placement for hoarders.

The services could fill in the needed gaps, according to Steven Horvath, assistant administrator of the Monmouth County Mental Health Board.

"The idea of a hoarding disorder institute is exciting to me because we really don't have resources for hoarding," Horvath said. "It's very difficult to match an individual with resources they can afford and that will meet their needs."

In the meantime, Dave Adams, owner of At Your Disposal, a Shrewsbury, N.J.-based hauling company, is quietly working with a few shore families of hoarders to help clean them out. Adams has helped with cleanouts on TLC's "Hoarding: Buried Alive," one of three popular cable shows on the topic.

"Still, most hoarders aren't calling for Dumpsters, even after the storm," Adams said. "They're still holding on to their stuff. If some of the stuff we see -- the feces and the garbage -- doesn't bother them, saltwater wouldn't, either."

Elizabeth Nelson, spokeswoman for, a 2,800-member online support group, said the disorder doesn't slow down or stop due to a disaster.

"Sometimes we imagine it all going up in smoke, metaphorically, because of a flood or fire," she said, "but a hoarder keeps water- or smoke-damaged belongings."

Sometimes the hoarding is even more deeply hidden. Haggerty recalls arriving at a four-acre estate to help a homeowner after Sandy. The opulence of the home did not surprise him, he said, because hoarding crosses all economic, educational, cultural, and age demographics.

When no one answered the doorbell at the estate, Haggerty's co-worker looked in the windows. All the rooms were empty.

Later the two discovered the woman only hoarded in interior rooms.

"She knew that people could look in her windows so she only hoarded where it couldn't be seen," Haggerty said. "That speaks to the complete secretive nature of the problem. This is a hidden epidemic."

According to the International OCD Foundation, recent studies indicate as many as one in 20 people have significant hoarding problems.

In addition to hoarding being more prevalent in densely populated areas where people live in smaller dwellings such as townhouses and apartment buildings, there are other reasons hoarding has become such a hot topic.

First, hoarding will become its own psychiatric diagnosis in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, known as DSM-5, to be released in May. The American Psychiatric Association, which produces the DSM, hopes the unique diagnosis will help more cases come to light and stimulate research into specific treatments.

Second, hoarding is mostly encountered by social service agencies among seniors, Cooper said, because it takes decades for the psychiatric condition to become so severe that it comes to the attention of the community.

Indeed the famous Collyer Brothers, whose dead bodies in 1947 were extracted from tons of debris in their three-story Harlem brownstone, had been developing their hoard for 30 years before they died in it.

Today there are 79 million baby boomers in the nation. The more they age, Cooper said, the more time they have to accumulate items and potentially become hoarders. Sometimes the death of a non-hoarding spouse can activate hoarding tendencies in the surviving spouse, either as a psychological response to the loss or simply because there is nothing to stop a hoard from being created and grown.

"It moves from normal collecting to clutter to pathological acquiring, which is the psychiatric disorder," Cooper said.

According to Randy Frost, a research pioneer in hoarding and co-author of "Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things" (Mariner Books, $14.95), hoarding dates to at least the fourteenth century but has never been so visible as it is today in westernized societies.

Frost noted that there are now 2 billion square feet of space in storage facilities, which were almost nonexistent 40 years ago, and that the average house size has increased by 60 percent since 1970.

"Perhaps the abundance of inexpensive and easily accessible objects makes it the disorder of the decade," he writes.