Behind the Scenes at Mardi Gras

 

(This column was first published in the February 23, 2004 issue of The Buffalo News.)

 

Tomorrow is Mardi Gras, literally Fat Tuesday. Mardi Gras is one of those quasi-religious holidays like Halloween. In New Orleans it is a party day of feasts, parades and costumes that end at midnight when the Catholic season of Lent begins.

 

What visiting celebrants don't realize is that behind the sounds of the horns and shouting of the hedonistic celebration there is an indistinct crunching sound. The city of New Orleans is literally being torn apart from within.

 

It comes as little comfort for us Amherst homeowners beset with sinking houses to learn that in New Orleans conditions are even worse. But they are indeed.

 

A front page picture in the New Orleans Times-Picayune recently showed one house, its walls canted outward at about twenty degrees, its roof peak open about two feet, the living room exposed through foot-wide cracks and, despite some propping beams, the entire residence simply falling apart. What was once a lovely home is, of course, worthless.

 

And the cause? The city is being devoured from within by Formosan termites.

 

The collapsing homes and falling trees sound like part of a science fiction movie and indeed one writer has described the termites as having "the appetite of Mothra and the destructive power of Godzilla." Sadly in this case, however, the story is true. The damage to the French Quarter alone has been estimated at more than $300 million a year; nationally the termites cost us over a billion dollars annually.

 

And all this destruction is done by tiny insects the size of ants.

 

Tiny, yes, but an average colony has five million of them. The total number of these terrible gnawers just in New Orleans is well up in the billions and now they have spread widely in the South. They have long been a problem in Hawaii and are beginning to chew up California.

 

Formosan termites' basic food is wood and they have eaten, according to writer John McQuaid, "live trees, ornamental sugar cane, caskets, creosote-treated utility poles, wooden bridges, railroad ties, wharves and pilings under buildings," but their diet has also included, "concrete electrical vaults, traffic control switch boxes, the seals on high-pressure water lines, foam and fiberglass insulation, lime brick mortar, caulk, felt paper, roofing material, lead, copper, books, paintings, furniture and plastic pool liners."

 

McQuaid also tells how they chewed through plastic, rubber and lead to get to the paper lining around 24,000 volt transmission lines under the New Orleans business district. Water then reached the exposed lines causing explosions and power outages.

 

Formosan termites were probably brought to this country from Asia during World War II in wood carried by military cargo ships. They were seldom noticed until Hurricane Andrew knocked down thousands of New Orleans' beautiful live oaks in 1992. Workers clearing the trees discovered two-thirds infested with termites. By then, however, the termites had already spread to man-made structures.

 

In 1998 the federal government entered the battle with, adopting military jargon, a program termed Operation Full Stop. Thermal imaging and acoustic devices detect termites deep in normal appearing wood and new pesticides are then applied. One fungus developed by microbiologist Mark Jackson, has proved especially effective.

 

Battles are finally being won against the masses of invaders but for many home and business property owners those wins come too late. In too many cases their buildings are valueless. Schools especially have suffered.

 

Formosan termites are normally restricted to areas of warm climate. Entomologists worry, however, that our heated houses may encourage these terrible insects to venture farther north to join our carpenter ants.

 

Let's hope not.-- Gerry Rising