Initially, officials thought it was just St. Louis encephalitis. Meanwhile, birds were dying everywhere, especially crows. Before 2000, New York City had a crow problem. West Nile took care of the crow problem.
At first, no one noticed. Local exterminators, protesting a law being considered to ban a poison, had unloaded a bunch of the poison in local parks. Birds ate it, and died. Investigators were inundated with dead birds as a result, and didn’t notice West Nile, which, according to Despommier’s theory, probably came to New York with a tourist bitten at an Israeli goose farm—the geese raised to produce foie gras.
10. After West Nile
The West Nile Virus completely changed how the city worries about, plans for, and fights against mosquitoes. Before 1999, the city was not so worried about pipiens per se—they’d order spraying in parks and marshes and at beaches, targeting adult-mosquito populations. Mosquito experts call this “adulticiding,” and consider it far less effective than attacking larval populations, when the toxin needs to be much less toxic. At one point during the initial West Nile breakout, the Giuliani administration had helicopters spraying highways and neighborhoods with malathion, an organophosphate pesticide, related to nerve gas, which kills mosquitoes by disrupting the action of their nerve cells. Mosquito-control workers said the spray made them ill. Critics said the pesticide helped kill off the lobster population in Long Island Sound—lobsters being sort of like giant mosquitoes, if you think about it. At one point, Giuliani put fish in the sewer-treatment plants, to eat the larvae.
After West Nile, the city began to do a better job thinking about mosquitoes, especially under the leadership of Waheed Bajwa, who is now the executive director of the Health Department’s Office of Vector Surveillance and Control. (A vector is the medical term for anything that spreads disease from one creature to another, like the fleas that carried plague from rats to people during the Black Death.) A citizen will hear from Bajwa if he keeps a birdbath full of water—remember, a pipiens needs just a thimbleful to ruin your day and the days of your neighbors. And a citizen can consult his department’s press releases and maps—they publish the results of the West Nile sampling surveys throughout the summer. Last year, the black-and-white maps of the city were devoid of red hot spots marking West Nile reports in the early summer, but slowly Staten Island went red, along with parts of Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, and then the West Village—a surprise. (Turned out, because Washington Square Park was under construction, the mosquito larvae could not be treated.)
But the people out in the field dealing with the pipiens problem are not city workers but exterminators—in particular, the men and women at Kingsway Exterminating. Motto: “We kill with skill.” They are a family business, operated by Richard Kourbage, who responded to a call for bids from the city after the West Nile outbreaks.
11. Kourbage’s Army
Kourbage is getting ready. He sits in his office overlooking an intersection of catch basins on Flatbush Avenue, on the border of Marine Park and Flatlands. He arms his crews with tea-bag-like packets of crystals, which release a bacteria that is eaten by mosquito larvae, lodging lethally in their gut; in the U.S., it goes by the brand name VectoMax WSP.
“It’s always best to start early,” says Kourbage. “Mosquitoes can be overwhelming in a short time. We don’t want them to get a foothold.”
Kourbage has been in the business since 1962, working with rats, roaches, and now bedbugs. He was trained by Chuck Schumer’s grandfather and great-grandfather (the senator comes from a long line of exterminators). Kourbage and his men visit each catch basin in the city, over 200,000 of them. In crews of two dozen men, they visit each about four times. They use bikes to speed the trip—folding bikes that can fit in cars or be taken on subways.
At first, the men were mistaken for terrorists and reported to police. Now the police are aware of them. So they don’t repeat treatment of a single catch basin, they leave a colored dot on the basin when they’re finished; the history of the city’s war with pipiens is written on our curbs. “We’re not allowed to use red or orange,” says Kourbage. “We’re limited by the city to certain colors. Black we did once. Silver we’ve used.”
Catch-basin density is a neighborhood thing: seventeen of them, for instance, at the intersection of Hillside Avenue and 240th Street in Bellerose, Queens. “In Queens, you could go five blocks and get 100 catch basins,” says Saifee Mehta, Kourbage’s deputy in charge of the catch-basin fleet.