Pat Johnson, an employee for the Liberty County Maintenance Department, drives his mosquito spraying machine through a neighborhood in an attempt to control mosquitos in Bristol, Fla.AP PHOTO
Millions of mosquito eggs laid across southern Texas after Hurricane Ike hit the coast last summer are waiting for the little bit of rain and hot summer days they need to hatch. That’s got the man whose job it is to fight the bugs worried — he’s already running out of money.
Lee Chastant and fellow bug battlers across the Gulf of Mexico in Florida, up the East Coast in Connecticut and on the Great Plains of South Dakota, are predicting a bumper crop of the always annoying and sometimes deadly pests. And even in places where dwindling tax revenues haven’t forced mosquito control budget cuts, they’re concerned about keeping up with the summer swarm.
“We’re funded by county taxes, but by the end of last month, I’d blown through my whole chemical budget,” said Chastant, a veteran mosquito fighter from Beaumont, Texas. “And we’re just now hitting the mosquito season.”
The millions of dollars spent on insecticide nationwide to kill mosquito eggs and adults, as well as traps to monitor and test populations, isn’t an exercise in keeping picnics and pool parties safe from itchy bug bites. West Nile virus, which is transmitted to humans by mosquitoes, infected more than 1,300 and killed 44 people last year. Already, the virus already has sickened people in South Dakota and Colorado this year.
Keith Wardlaw, president of the West Central Mosquito and Vector Control Association, said he’s hearing about funding cuts across the association’s eight-state region of the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico. The program he oversees in Laramie, Wyo., had its budget cut by 10 percent. When budget cuts happen, people running mosquito control programs have few choices: Cut back on the chemicals needed to tame the bugs or the number of people who go out to spray them. Either choice raises fears of bigger bug populations.
In Florida’s Palm Beach County, officials cut the mosquito control budget by about $150,000 this year, leading to cutbacks in both the both volume of chemicals used and the frequency of aerial spraying in rural residential developments.
“Obviously, people have come to expect a certain level of service and a lot of people have voiced their displeasure that we’re not spraying as often as we did in the past ... but sometimes we just have to try to get the most bang for our buck, so to speak,” said Mosquito Control Director Ed Bradford.
The bugs are already getting to Tom Rahill, 52, who volunteers at the Everglades National Park clearing an overgrown trail. His long blond hair and beard help protect his face a little from the millions of bugs in the overgrowth, but he also wears a long-sleeve shirt, gloves, pants and snake boots to keep the bugs at bay.
“Anytime you take, say, a glove off, you’ll get swarmed by thousands of mosquitoes,” he said.
Last year, seven of South Dakota’s 39 human West Nile cases came in the area around Aberdeen, which received $25,506 in state money for mosquito abatement. This year, the state gave Aberdeen and 176 other local governments only $1,100 worth of chemicals.
In Connecticut, lawmakers fighting over the state’s budget still are considering cuts to the state’s mosquito control efforts, while the federal money the state usually gets from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for testing has been cut in half. The state tests and traps about 200,000 mosquitoes each year in 90 locations, looking for nine viruses, six of which can cause human disease.
The state and others in the Northeast are still waiting for their mosquito season to start, but on the heels of a rainy spring and early rainy summer, it’s coming. Mosquito eggs require water to hatch, and warmer water and air temperatures accelerate the development from egg to adult mosquito.
“We’re anticipating that we’re going to get clobbered,” said Theodore G. Andreadis, who oversees Connecticut’s mosquito surveillance program, “as soon as the weather breaks and we move into a period of warm weather, which is undoubtedly going to occur.”
In southeast Texas, Chastant got $700,000 this year to spray for bugs as director of Jefferson County’s mosquito control district. Normally, that would be enough. But the county east of Houston was socked with rain by both Ike and Hurricane Rita in 2005, leaving behind plenty of standing water in which the mosquitoes thrived and left behind millions of eggs.