Voracious insects eating Big Easy

Termites: In New Orleans, a city proud of its heritage, hidden pests from Asia are chewing away at the scenery.

June 30, 1999|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW ORLEANS -- They snack on schools and lunch on libraries. Their hunger for houses is matched only by their appetite for apartments. They literally feast on the French Quarter.

Termites are eating New Orleans.

But these are no ordinary termites. In this city of excess, where sandwiches are overstuffed, dripping affairs and the cuisine ranges from the heavily sauced to the hyper-spiced, it is appropriate that a particularly gluttonous species, the Formosan termite, is chewing its way through town.

While about a dozen Southern states are plagued by Formosan termites, which eat through wood nine times as fast as their native counterparts, the New Orleans area is believed to be the most heavily infested.

"We've got wood everywhere for them to eat," sighed Dennis Ring, a Louisiana State University Extension Service entomologist, among a battalion of researchers and pest-control operators enlisted in what has been called the Second Battle of New Orleans.

Formosan termites apparently arrived in this and other port cities after the end of World War II, stowaways in the packing material aboard military cargo ships returning home from Asia. They went largely undetected for decades, blending in with the native termites.

By the 1960s, it was increasingly apparent that what was eating New Orleans was much worse than the city had seen before. Soon the diagnosis was made: the Formosan termite, among the most destructive of the 2,300 known species of the insect.

Everything about them is bigger and badder: their colonies, their appetites, their capacity for destruction.

Ring offered this comparison: The average native termite colony will have 200,000 to 1 million members and will eat about 7 pounds of wood a year. A Formosan colony will have 2 million to 10 million members and eat about 1,000 pounds of wood a year.

"It's like a horror movie," said Marc Cooper, director of the Vieux Carre Commission, guardian of the French Quarter, which has been particularly besieged. "It's really scary. They're eating churches. They ate the clock tower at St. Patrick's. They eat 24 hours a day."

Decay from the inside

People here get a little crazy over this subject. And with good reason: Houses have collapsed, trees have toppled and telephone service has been halted after termites bored through underground cables in search of food.

Estimates of termite infestation here range wildly. The most pessimistic say 80 percent of the houses and 50 percent of the trees have termites. But a true census is impossible because much of what termites do is hidden away, underground or within walls, the extent of damage unknown until too late.

In fact, it often takes another disaster -- fire or hurricane, say -- to uncover the beasts within. Termites shy away from open air, nesting under cover and building mud tubes through which they'll travel when they need to leave the nest in search of food.

A 1988 fire at the historic Cabildo in the French Quarter, for example, did extensive damage and revealed that termites had been busily destroying the building from the inside out -- an alarming revelation for what is perhaps the state's most storied building. The Cabildo, which was built from 1795 to 1799 as the seat of the Spanish colonial government in New Orleans, is where the Louisiana Purchase was signed and the landmark segregation case Plessy vs. Ferguson was first heard.

"These 14-inch beams were charred through 2, 3 inches deep on all sides. But inside were live termite colonies. The temperature must have exceeded 1,000 degrees, and these termites lived through it all," Jim Sefcik said with a note of wonder.

Sefcik is director of the Louisiana State Museum, which is housed in the Cabildo and several other historic buildings. All have had extensive termite damage. Since the Cabildo fire, each has been painstakingly baited and treated for termites.

Recently, workers were finishing the treatment of another of the state museum buildings, the U.S. Mint. The 159-year-old structure is the only building in the country to have served as both a U.S. and Confederate mint.

Workers drilled holes every 12 inches in every piece of wood in the building, through which they injected a pesticide, and then plugged the hole.

"The chemical is absorbed into the wood, and then the termite won't eat it," said Armand Labourdette, one of the pest-control workers under contract to treat the Mint.

Chemical warfare

All around the French Quarter are signs of the full-scale war against termites.

"Tourists are really confused by these," said Alan Morgan, an LSU extension agent, prying off one of the countless metal discs embedded in the sidewalks. "People think they're for the Mardi Gras, that we put barricades up to control the crowds."

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