Pests take bite out of history

Published May 15, 2000|Updated Sept. 27, 2005

New Orleans' French Quarter is at the heart of a $15-million effort to thwart destructive Formosan termites.

It is the height of the social season here. Every year around Mother's Day, emboldened by humidity as dense as wet laundry, tens of thousands of couples, romantically lit by gaslights, descend upon the historic French Quarter to mate.

It is Formosan termite swarm season, when termite wing cases flutter in the breeze and homeowners wonder if they have stumbled into a 1950s horror film.

Formosan subterranean termites with an insatiable taste for irreplaceable historic structures have been devastating the French Quarter, drawn to its moist, porous bricks and centuries-old wood, ravaging ancient live oak trees.

The Quarter is ground zero in the federal government's $15-million effort to thwart the Formosan, the most destructive species of termite in the world, capable of building colonies of up to 10-million writhing white bugs, which devour an average of 1,000 pounds of wood a year.

Native termite colonies, one-tenth the size, eat a meager 7 pounds per year.

An exotic species probably imported in the 1940s in infested planks aboard military cargo ships, the Formosan termite has spread through 11 states, including California, creating an estimated $1-billion a year in damage, $300-million of it in greater New Orleans.

Eighty percent of the city's historic structures have been affected, and almost every house, experts say.

Bugs are eating their way through landmarks along the Gulf Coast, from barracks at the Citadel in Charleston, S.C., to cast-iron fronted stores in Galveston's Strand Historic District. And they are heading north, having been confirmed in North Carolina.

Much of their movement can be traced to humankind: infested railroad ties sold for landscaping, said Brian Forschler, an associate professor at the University of Georgia.

In New Orleans, termite baits round out historic decor, lying in wait behind Victorian velvet settees, beneath Persian rugs. In swarm season, which lasts through June, flying Formosans, called alates, leave nests by the tens of thousands to build colonies, blinding motorists in bewinged blizzards.

"You can't have people over," said Roland Behan, who lives in the Lower Pontalba apartments, built in 1851, overlooking Jackson Square. "You don't want them to step in the wrong spot and go through the floor."

Jimmy and Marie Cahn, longtime residents of an 1840s Creole cottage, remember all too well the dinner party they threw last year that was interrupted by clouds of termites streaming out of the kitchen walls, swarming toward the fanlights and dropping into the chicken cacciatore.

In a city below sea level with a history of flood and pestilence, termite damage is both physical and psychological, playing into its residents' predilection for dark humor and fatalism.

With powerful mandibles, Formosan subterranean termites are more intrusive foragers than their native counterparts, tunneling through plaster, creosote, plastic, asphalt, electrical high-voltage wire, utility poles, even espresso makers, to find food and water. A queen can live for 30 years and lay up to 1,000 eggs a day.

Dr. Gregg Henderson, an associate professor of entomology at Louisiana State University Agricultural Center in Baton Rouge, calls the swarm "the eighth wonder of the world." He is working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the New Orleans Mosquito and Termite Control Board on Operation Full Stop, a national termite eradication program that includes treating 15 blocks in the 100-block French Quarter.

Dr. Dennis Ring, his colleague at the center, added, "This termite flies. We can reduce numbers. Eradicating them is just not going to happen."

New Orleans architecture is custom-made for termites: flat-roofed wooden structures with shared walls and porous stucco, designed with a cooling wicking action to absorb moisture in days before air-conditioning.

Joists supporting floors and ceilings sit in pockets in the ancient brick, providing "a Ho Chi Minh trail between bricks and mortar and their food source," said Marc Cooper, director of the Vieux Carre Commission, the city preservation agency that oversees the French Quarter.

One house in Lake Charles, La., has a colony estimated at 70-million Formosan termites.

Around this time of year, lights are dimmed at dusk and the talk revolves around baiting and trapping, giving the "city that care forgot" the impression of a gigantic Rod & Gun club.

In the testing area around Jackson Square, tourists pass sticky traps and step unaware on silver discs implanted in the sidewalk, indicating underground baits.

Baiting, which costs about $1,500 a year a house, is the newest and most promising treatment thus far. In contrast to traditional pesticides, which create a poison barrier around a building, baits contain wood laced with a low-toxicity pesticide that prevents the termites from shedding their exoskeleton during molting, essentially strangling them in their own skin. They carry the toxin back to the nest, infecting their cohorts.

The termites hid successfully for 25 years, reaching a critical mass a decade ago. "They're cryptic insects," said Ed Bordes, administrator of the city's Mosquito and Termite Control Board.

Three years after a colony is formed, the population starts "square-rooting" and continues to do so each year, said Ed Martin, an entomologist and president of Terminix New Orleans, a pest-control franchise. The infestation has grown bigger since 1987, when chlordane, an effective termiticide, was banned by the Environmental Protection Agency as a probable human carcinogen.

Baiting is having promising results in some of the city's most treasured landmarks, which just a few years ago were infested.

They include the majestic Cabildo, built in 1795-1799, where the Louisiana Purchase was signed, the Presbytere, 1795-1847, originally built as the rectory for St. Louis Cathedral, and Perseverance Hall (1820), a longstanding cultural center for the African-American community. "We're going after the enemy instead of letting him come to us," Martin said.

Preliminary research in treated areas of the French Quarter indicates scientists have turned a corner in their battle. At a recent public update for residents of the quarter, entomologists explained ways to invite termites into your home. These included air-conditioning leaks and polystyrene slab insulation.

The economics of Formosan termite infestation are of greatest concern to residents in New Orleans. Termite inspections are mandatory before the purchase of a property, but they are of limited effectiveness. When inspecting a house, pest-control operators are not responsible for pulling up floor boards or checking inaccessible crawl spaces.

Despite regular termite inspections, Janet and Scott Howard and their children one day discovered a terrible infestation in their 1920s federal house in the city's historic Garden District. Termites had turned their joists, in her words, "into straw." They say it will cost around $400,000 to repair the damage. Of that, $150,000 is reimbursable through her pest-control company, which they are suing for misdiagnosing the problem and for improper repairs.

Last month, Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., introduced a bill proposing tax relief for homeowners. It would change the definition of casualty loss to include Formosan termites. It would also provide low-interest loans for treatment. "It's not a sudden disaster," Landrieu said, "but it is certain."

In Hawaii, residents have been battling the Formosan termite for more than a century. The famed Iolani Palace in Honolulu, built in 1845, was so decimated that it had to be rebuilt in 1879. Builders are now required to use chemically treated wood for framing. But in Louisiana, builders object that it would add $3,000 to the price of each house.

Building techniques are evolving even in historic structures. In New Orleans, the old clock in the tower of St. Patrick's church was recently replaced with a fiberglass version, its beams with steel, its wooden floors with lightweight concrete.

In their never-ending search for what one scientist called the termite's "Achilles' heel," researchers are focusing on behavior and detection, hoping to find termites within walls by homing in on the sound they emit. They are also studying vetiver, a fragrant grass cultivated for centuries by the Creoles that contains nootkatone, a natural repellent.

Still, community-wide action, such as the one in the French Quarter, seems to hold the most promise. "It's an effort that has to cut across property boundaries," said Forschler, of the University of Georgia.

In the Quarter, residents are philosophical. "God may have said "subdue the earth,' " observed Kenneth Hedrick, rector of St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square, which is battling termites. "But some things can't be subdued."