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Houston’s next big storm: Mosquitoes

The flood-ruined contents of a home in southwest Houston await pickup this week. (Patricia Sullivan for The Washington Post)
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Houston is on the cusp of a potential second disaster. And it has everything to do with what was wrecked by Hurricane Harvey: the detritus of waterlogged lives. In all those curbside piles of ruined belongings and broken furniture, in any crevice where water can gather, so, too, gather mosquitoes.

“There will soon be a lot of mosquitoes, and they will be very noticeable because of their sheer numbers and because they are vicious biters,” Charles Allen, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service entomologist and associate department head of entomology at A&M's San Angelo branch said in a statement this week.

But it's the possibility of disease outbreaks that now make the annoying insects a high priority for many post-Harvey. The mosquitoes endemic to the Texas Gulf Coast can carry a host of potentially deadly viruses, including Zika and West Nile.

Local spraying has already begun, and aerial spraying in five counties in the Corpus Christi area to the south will begin Thursday evening, according to Gov. Greg Abbott. Pitching in later will be the U.S. Air Force Reserve’s 910th Airlift Wing, which has specially equipped cargo planes that will be spraying farther up the coast.

But the magnitude of the mosquito problem may not manifest itself for at least another week, according to Umair Shah, executive director of public health for Harris County, which includes Houston.

“The issue is that the first flood event often washes out the fetal larvae,” he explained Wednesday, “so there’s a period of time where the mosquitoes are not there. Then there comes a time with standing water and an inability to drain it. For people coming back [to their homes] … standing water is the last thing they’re thinking about.”

Shah hopes they will, especially as they remove the contents of their flooded homes.

“The debris being removed from people’s properties, that goes on to the curb, if we have more rain or there is water not drained, those are breeding grounds for mosquitoes,” he said. “So one big challenge is how to haul off all that debris from people’s front yards.”

In areas of Harris County outside of the city limits, the public health department is working with emergency services to hire private contractors to clear yards of the mounds of household furnishings and materials.

The fear, Shah said, are the mosquito-borne diseases. But at least with West Nile, birds are needed for it to spread.

“A lot of them left because of the storm, so we think there may be a diminishment of West Nile right now,” he said. “But eventually the birds will come back.”

Complicating surveillance efforts right now is that some 300 mosquito traps located around the county had to be removed before Harvey hit. “Now the challenge is putting them back,” he said. “We’re in the process of returning them, [but] some of the roads are still inaccessible.”

Nothing has been easy for public health officials here since late August. Another six weeks, and the mosquito season would have been largely over and the necessity for aerial spraying put off for another year.

But as Shah puts it: “Harvey was a game-changer.”

Read more:

The health dangers from Hurricane Harvey’s floods and Houston’s chemical plants

Houston becomes a city in recovery after Harvey