by Dennis Reeves Cooper…….
Before the Florida Keys meant sun, sea and Jimmy Buffet, they were famous for mosquitoes– dense, black clouds of them that hummed and bit without pause, spread malaria, dengue and yellow fever, and drove visitors temporarily insane with irritation. At the beginning of the 20th Century, many thought that Florida was virtually uninhabitable and could never be developed. By 1922, however, Dr. J.Y. Porter was on the job as the Florida’s first health officer and was proposing procedures to help control mosquitoes. Those procedures would lead to the establishment of mosquito control districts all over the state. Dr. Porter, by the way, was from Key West. His former home, Porter House, is that big three-story mansion on Caroline Street at Duval Street.
The first attempt to control mosquitoes in the Keys dates back to 1929 when businessman Richter Perky realized that the mosquito problem was impeding the development of his fishing resort on Lower Sugarloaf Key. His construction manager reportedly told him that, “in the late afternoon, you have to scrape the mosquitoes off your arms.” Perky had heard of efforts in Texas to build artificial roosts to attract bats, which are natural predators of mosquitoes. So Perky spent $10,000 to build a 30-foot-tall “bat tower”– which still stands on Lower Sugarloaf. Unfortunately, not a single bat ever moved in.
Mosquito control in the Keys has come a long way since Perky’s Bat Tower. In fact, mosquito control has become so effective that most of us here in the Keys rarely even think about it. And perhaps this situation can be explained with one word– SCIENCE. The state of Florida hosts 80 different species of mosquitoes. Of those, 46 species are found in the Florida Keys– and different species often require different control strategies. A team of entomologists (mosquito experts) are literally designing a multi-faceted attack on these different species by combining the use of various pesticides and larvicides, applied by spray trucks, helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft– and even hand-held foggers, when necessary.
Some of the district’s efforts to control mosquitoes are impressively creative– like use of Gambusia fish, which you might think of as the covert special forces in the war against mosquitoes. These are little silver fish, one-to-two-inches long, that live in brackish water and feed on mosquito larvae. The Gambusia, native to the Keys, are collected from the mangroves as well as bred in a pool at Mosquito Control headquarters on Stock Island. They are then released into abandoned swimming pools and hot tubs and anywhere else where water tends to stand– since mosquitoes breed in standing water. Also, you may have heard that the mosquito control experts here are exploring the implementation of a very creative program of mosquito birth control– the release of genetically-modified male mosquitoes. The concept here is that when the genetically-modified males mate with females, their offspring simply die. Trials in Brazil, Panama and the Cayman Islands have shown significant decreases in mosquito population. Implementation here is on hold pending the publication of government environmental assessment reports.
But beyond the science, mosquito control is basically a personal service. About three-quarters of the 100 full-time and part-time Mosquito Control District employees are inspectors, who have the responsibility of visiting every single property in the Florida Keys every three months. They’re basically looking for standing water– and not just in abandoned swimming pools and hot tubs, but also in old automobile tires, rain-filled buckets and backed-up drainpipes. They also leave educational pamphlets advising property owners concerning possible places where mosquitoes can breed. In addition, complaints from residents about mosquito problems get priority treatment by district inspectors. The contact number in Key West is 305-292-7199. Website: keysmosquito.org. You might think that the goal of the Mosquito Control District is the complete eradication of mosquitoes in the Keys. That is not true. And it is not true because complete eradication is impossible. Much of the land area in the Keys is in the Everglades– and the Everglades is a no-spray zone.
About the Zika Virus. The World Health Organization director general recently noted that, while health concern about the virus is high, so is the uncertainty. She added that, while a causal relationship between the mosquito-borne virus and brain, hearing and vision damage in babies is strongly suspected, that linkage remains only circumstantial at this time. Although there have been about 20 confirmed cases in Florida, there have so far been no confirmed cases in the Keys. The Florida Department of Health has set up a Zika Virus Information Hotline to answer questions about the virus and the state’s preparedness efforts. The hotline number is 855-622-6735.
Today, with multiple entomologists on the staff, the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District is truly science-directed. But it wasn’t always that way. When I wrote my first story about mosquito control back in 1992, there were no entomologists on the staff. Well, actually, an entomologist position had been budgeted– but Dennis Wardlow, who was then Mayor of the City of Key West at that time, needed a job. How did Wardlow’s employment situation affect the adding of an entomologist (or not) at the Mosquito Control District? Here is the short version of that story. You see, the job of Mayor in Key West is a part-time job, at least in terms of pay. And Wardlow’s pool cleaning business wasn’t doing all that well. So Wardlow’s political friends set out to fix a job for him somewhere in government. Subsequently, three of the five members of the Mosquito Control Board were convinced that the little agency needed a second Assistant Director. No matter that Lois Ryan, the longtime Mosquito Control Director told the Board, “I don’t even need one Assistant Director, much less two!” The creation of the new position was approved by a vote of 3-2, preempting the money previously budgeted for an entomologist.
More than 70 applicants applied for the job, every single one of them more qualified than Wardlow– who has a mail-order “certificate” degree. No matter. The Board voted to hire Wardlow with a 3-2 vote. Are you shocked? For the record, the Commissioners voting in favor of hiring Wardlow were Ellie Cameron-Arnold, Steve Eid and Waldo Veliz (father of Greg Veliz, currently one of two Key West Assistant City Managers). Subsequently, the Board fired Lois Ryan and promoted the first Assistant Director to Director, leaving Wardlow as the single Assistant Director. For some reason, the Board never back-filled the job of second Assistant Director. Go figure. During his time on the mosquito control clock, phone logs revealed that Wardlow was spending much of his time dealing with City of Key West business. In fact, a courier from City Hall dropped off daily packages of paperwork for the Mayor to review.
By 1996, Commissioners Cameron-Arnold, Eid and Veliz probably assumed that the job fix was history and had been forgotten by the voters, so they all ran for reelection. But a funny thing happened that election year. Two first-time politicians– Bill Shaw and Steve Smith– came forward to challenge Cameron-Arnold and Veliz. Their message to voters: “If elected, we will unfix the job that was created as a political favor.” By this time, we at The Blue Paper had been covering the job-fix story for years and we were the only newspaper in the Keys to endorse Shaw and Smith. They beat Cameron-Arnold and Veliz by landslide margins, and Eid didn’t even make the runoff! Subsequently, the new Board terminated Wardlow’s contract. However, he was able to get a job managing the Moose Lodge. Any scandal is embarrassing for any government agency. But the now-infamous job-fix scandal turned out to be a turning point for science-driven mosquito control in the Florida Keys. And for the record, Bill Shaw and Steve Smith have been reelected five times and are both still on the Board.