The Heat Is Online

Houston Suffers Its Worst Mosquito Infestation

In Hazy, Humid Houston, the Mosquitoes Are Winning. Big.

The New York Times, June 22, 2001

HOUSTON, June 21 — Clarence Watkins, a head lineman for Reliant Energy, the local utility, considers himself at war.

He works in the afternoon and evening — what might be described as mosquito prime time in this city still recovering from huge rains and flooding — and defends himself with a style of slapping and leg-kicking akin to Irish line dancing.

"I've got a long-sleeve shirt and two good slapping arms," said Mr. Watkins, 37. "It's like 300 of them and one of you. It's like fighting a small army. You can hear them. You know they are coming."

First came the rains. Now the mosquitoes.

They are everywhere, a swarm of science-fiction-like proportions spawned by the torrential rains and flooding here wrought earlier this month by Tropical Storm Allison. The flooding caused an estimated $4.88 billion in local property damage that may take months or longer to repair. It has also raised long-range questions about whether this city encircled by bayous must rethink its readiness for huge amounts of rainfall.

But, really, the main topic of conversation is mosquitoes. There are about 3.1 million people in Houston and surrounding Harris County. Officials say hundreds of millions of mosquitoes may have taken flight since the flood. It is not a fair fight.

As yet, the mosquitoes are not considered a health risk, but it is still an act of bravery to go outside, to collect the morning newspaper, to water the plants. It is so bad that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has taken the unusual step of offering to reimburse the city for most of its mosquito spraying costs.

The Houston Chronicle even ran a magnified front-page photograph of a mosquito crawling along the nose of a 12-year-old boy as if it were King Kong scaling the Empire State Building. In this, one of the nation's most hermetically sealed cities, no place is completely mosquito-free: They have been spotted in the air-conditioned pedestrian tunnels that run beneath downtown and inside the city's skyscrapers.

"I work on the 27th floor, and I don't know how a mosquito got up there," said Roland Esparza, 42, who was bitten twice inside his office. "I told a co-worker, `You know, we need to get these mosquitoes and find out how they get in the building, ride up the elevator, go up to the 27th floor and find me.' "

Bugs are not exactly a new phenomenon to Houston. Heat, humidity and rainfall — mother's milk to much of the insect world — are found in abundance here.

The cockroaches are big enough to frighten small children. Hardware stores stock pesticides the way drug stores stock aspirin. The world's first indoor stadium, the Astrodome, was built as a refuge from the heat and mosquitoes of the city's summers. The area's most powerful politician, Representative Tom DeLay, the House majority whip, began his career as an exterminator. In all, 55 species of mosquitoes call Houston home, and even under normal conditions man often wages a losing battle against them.

But this outbreak is the worst in memory, said Dr. Ray Parsons, head of Harris County Mosquito Control. He said it was the custom of the different types of floodwater mosquitoes to scatter their eggs in the soil. If there is not much spring rain, the eggs do not hatch. Tropical Storm Allison hammered the region for five days ending June 10 so severely that for one 24-hour period some areas reported nearly three feet of rain. As a result, Dr. Parsons said, millions upon millions of mosquitoes were hatched last week.

To measure the problem, the control board dispatched inspectors and "surveillance specialists" to stand like scarecrows beneath trees and wait for 60 seconds. Then, each inspector and specialist counted the number of mosquitoes that landed on their body.

Anything more than 25 landings every 60 seconds is considered bad; some inspectors reported rates exceeding 100 landings a minute. It was this rate that prompted the Federal Emergency Management Agency to offer to reimburse local governments for up to 75 percent of the cost of spraying.

"I don't think there is any place that is mosquito-free," Dr. Parsons said, admitting that he had done a little field work outside his house recently and counted 50 landings. He said the problem might not ease for two to three weeks, even though municipal officials said that as many as 33 trucks would be out spraying this evening.

If there is good news, it is that no cases of disease have been reported, as happened in New York last year when mosquitoes carried the West Nile Virus. Still, Houston officials declared the mosquitoes a health hazard this week based on their sheer numbers and after complaints from hospitals at the sprawling Texas Medical Center, about three miles from downtown.

Many of the hospitals suffered basement flooding and power outages and had to open their windows to dry out or catch a breeze. The mosquitoes flew right in.

"These bugs are horrible," said Diane Roskar, 39, who lives near the medical center. "I have to run from my front door to my car because I'm getting bitten. They come in my home. I'm trying to fix dinner and they are flying up my skirt, biting me."

Like so many people here, Mrs. Roskar and her neighbor, Margie Eisen, have decided that the best defense is to simply stay indoors.

Ms. Eisen, 44, and her husband, Jim Auwerda, 45, invited friends of their son, Nicholas, to have a baseball game on Saturday for his ninth birthday party. Usually, this would be no problem. But the mosquitoes were so bad, the game was called in the second inning.

"I'm thinking that lawsuits are coming my way because the parents were saying their kids were being eaten alive," Ms. Eisen said.

Instead, everyone jumped in the backyard pool.

"The pool is a good place to get away from the bugs," Mr. Auwerda explained, "as long as you stay underwater."