Natural disasters come in many shapes and sizes, including floods, tornadoes, wildfires and hurricanes. In the span of one month from mid-August through mid-September, areas of the Southeastern, South Central and Pacific Northwest United States dealt with all four types of disaster. Some areas impacted by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria actually dealt with three out of the four. To everyone that was impacted or suffered loss as a result of these disasters, you are not just in my thoughts, but in the thoughts of the entire pest management community.
Hurricanes in particular are devastating on many levels, bringing with them powerful storm surges and massive amounts of rainfall, which often results in widespread flooding and prolonged periods without electricity. Hurricanes change the habitat for pests the same way they do for people, often sending both to the safe haven of “higher ground” during and after the storm. However, certain pests, such as flies, rodents and mosquitoes are often all the happier returning to damaged areas compared to their human counterparts. Quoting a professional colleague and insect identification specialist from Miami one week after Hurricane Irma made landfall, “(I am) tired of heat, sleeplessness, no electricity and the mosquitoes are becoming insanely numerous and voracious.” This is from a guy who normally has an inordinate fondness for all aspects of the insect natural world.
SAFETY FIRST! During recovery and clean-up efforts, your safety and the safety of your customers are of utmost importance. As you assess, inspect and repair structures, remember conditions are potentially hazardous and displaced pests are much more likely to be encountered. Increased emphasis on inspection is crucial to identifying pests, habitats and conducive conditions. When working in uncommon situations, we sometimes slip on simple safety principles. Always have extra PPE with you. Before looking for pests, know your surroundings, watch for debris and test the area you are operating in for structural or landscape integrity. Remember to stay hydrated. Working long hours in high heat and humidity can lead to heat stress. Be careful when working around debris piles or damaged structures and always remember that something may be hiding below. Wildlife (animals other than rats/mice) are stressed and scared too. If present, do not immediately approach them or try to trap/remove them. This is especially relevant to our customers, but good for us in the industry to remember as well. Allow licensed wildlife removal specialists to trap and remove animals.
OPPORTUNISTIC INVADERS. Three of the biggest public health threats PMPs regularly deal with are filth flies, rodents and mosquitoes. The threats these pests pose magnify after a natural disaster. Hurricanes often cause extended power outages, sewer systems to overflow and cause drastic landscape changes, leaving behind spilled sewage, spoiled food and rotting vegetation/landscape materials all of which are attractive to both flies (feeding and egg-laying sites) and rodents (feeding and harborage). This causes massive increases in populations and drastically increases the frequency at which they could come into contact with people, potentially spreading many of the potential diseases they are capable of carrying.
As floodwaters recede, often they leave behind many pools or containers full of stagnant water and organic debris. These are prime breeding sites for adult mosquitoes and nutrient rich larval habitats. As is the case for Miami in the aftermath of Irma, it typically only takes 7-10 days for mosquito populations to ramp up, putting people and pets in the crosshairs of the blood-sucking pests (and the multitude of potential diseases they spread). Protect yourself! When performing inspections or service, always wear an EPA-approved mosquito repellent and keep your eye on the clock to remember the reapplication interval. If you stocked up on repellent before the storm, something as simple as providing a customer (or potential customer) an extra can may pay dividends down the road (and you get the added “warm fuzzies” of just being a good human!).
WHAT SHOULD WE DO? In the whirlwind of the disaster itself and the subsequent recovery phase, pest management is oftentimes the last thing on the minds of our customers. In an effort to reduce any additional stress due to pests, it is important that PMPs keep focused on stressing the basic principles of IPM — cultural, physical and mechanical control prior to using chemical products. Encourage sanitation and pest habitat reduction. This may be the hardest piece of the IPM puzzle under normal conditions; expect cooperation after a disaster to be even harder.
Stress simple behaviors like bagging food-related trash and placing it in sealed bins (every little thing counts when attempting area-wide fly and rodent control). Inspect and replace/repair damaged window or door screens and other new openings into the structure. Ensure that moisture drainage systems are functional. Clear debris from drainage systems/canals to help remove standing water in areas and inspect, clean, or repair clogged or damaged gutters. Installing extra window screening or other “quick fix” exclusion items (plywood, foam sealant, etc.) pays dual dividends as it makes our job easier and allows the customer to focus on larger issues. Previous control strategies including traps, bait stations and treatments may have been displaced or damaged. Expect to replace missing devices and add other equipment to combat the influx of pests. Use all the mechanical control tools we have in the toolbox (jar/bag traps or mosquito ovitraps, sticky traps, single and multi-catch traps, ILTs, glueboards, etc.). Remember, chemical control only makes up one piece of the IPM puzzle and without all the other pieces, the puzzle can’t be completed.
Once again, my thoughts are with all of those impacted by the recent natural disasters. Wishing you a safe and healthy recovery!
The author is a board certified entomologist and manager — technical services at Rollins in Atlanta. Contact him at email@example.com.