By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Early in the afternoon of an unseasonably hot autumn day, an old flatbed truck with wooden side panels and dozens of limp, multicolor fiberglass "snakes" hanging from its back pulls into the narrow driveway of a ranch-style house in a quiet upper-middle-class neighborhood near Dadeland in South Miami. Though someone lives here, the place is deserted now. The doors are locked but all of the windows are open. A thin white braided polyurethane hose, maybe a quarter of an inch in diameter, lies coiled at the base of the front door; one end of the hose passes into the house through the open window nearest the door. A line of tiny red ants trails across the windowsill and over the hose, blissfully unaware of the fate about to befall them. Broken twigs and fallen green leaves around the periphery of the house indicate areas where shrubbery has recently been trimmed back.
Three men in red T-shirts emblazoned with the name and phone number of Guarantee/Floridian Pest Control hop out of the truck's cab. In addition to the T-shirts, the men's work uniforms consist of blue cotton pants, heavy shoes, and baseball caps. The youngest, Tory, baby-faced and light-complected, is also the heaviest. Billy, the senior member of the crew, has a medium build and a bushy mustache, and sports a black hair net under his rapidly deteriorating Oakland Raiders cap. When he scowls, Billy resembles baseball star Eddie Murray. Broad-shouldered Frank, who wears a gold chain around his neck, is the most muscular of the trio and the only one who wears his cap backward. A dozen four-inch aluminum clamps dangle from Frank's T-shirt like the jaws of animals that have bitten him and died without releasing their grip.
The men go about their business like a crack military drill team. Billy grabs a ladder from the truck and clambers atop the house while Frank and Tory survey its exterior. Billy is the "top man," the one who lays out the rectangular 30-by-60-foot soft fiberglass red and yellow (they come in a variety of colors) tarps that eventually will encase the house in a manner worthy of a working-class Christo. He accomplishes this task more by trial and error than by science. (The South Miami home requires three such tarps.) Rolled up, the tarps are heavy and bulky, almost as long as the men are tall and two or three feet in diameter. And yet Billy and Frank balance the bundled shrouds on their necks and shoulders with stunning ease, nonchalantly carrying them up to the roof, using both hands to hold on to the ladder.
Billy quickly spreads out the fiberglass coverings across the flat roof and down the sides of the house, while Frank and Tory begin clamping together the tarps' seams, taking special care to leave the coiled hose near the front door exposed. Tory and Frank carefully anchor the bottoms of the tarps with the four-foot-long fiberglass "snakes," each of which is filled with fifteen to twenty pounds of sand.
The men work hard and sweat profusely. They finish "tenting" the entire house in just under 45 minutes, then proceed to apply the final touch A a white Guarantee/Floridian sign that sits atop the home like a big white bow on a giant red and yellow Christmas present. By 2:30, Billy, Frank, and Tory are on their way to their next job.
The gas chamber has been prepped. Now it's time to bring on the executioner. Enter Raul Dominguez, Guarantee/Floridian's service manager and one of the company's three fumigators. Dominguez doesn't look like a hired killer. Eyewitnesses to his carnage would not describe the man as physically imposing; he's about five feet nine and carries a hint of padding about the midsection not uncommon in a man of 34 years. Nor does Dominguez's voice betray his capacity for slaughter; the affable assassin proudly reveals the secrets of his lethal trade in tones that range from confidently instructive to downright playful. And when he actually meets the people who, as a last resort, have contracted Dominguez's services to eradicate their foes, the polite hit man often calms their fears with a soothing speech.
"I try to make them realize that what they're doing is not that bad," Dominguez confides. "I tell them not to worry. It's no big deal."
But the truck Dominguez drives from massacre to massacre is anything but low-key: a white Ford F-150 pickup festooned with a half-dozen skull-and-crossbones signs that spell out in big block letters the words POISON and POISON GAS. That truck and the two 125-pound cylinders of Vikane (a colorless, tasteless, odorless gas that kills quickly and disappears without a trace) that ride in its bed have spelled doom for hundreds of thousands -- maybe millions -- of easy marks over the ten years that Dominguez has worked at Guarantee. Because Vikane is undetectable to human sight and smell, Dominguez pours a little chloropicrin (better known as tear gas) into a dish and allows the fumes to waft throughout the house as a warning agent, in case anyone remains in the home just tented by Billy, Frank, and Tory.
When no one comes running out of the house screaming and rubbing their eyes, Dominguez connects the hose on the front porch to one of the Vikane cylinders and shoots the gas into the home. After a few minutes he disconnects the hose. By this time tomorrow, the Vikane gas will have done its deadly damage and dispersed. From the moment the tent goes up, the entire fumigation process takes as little as 24 hours. The Vikane gas leaves no residue, and once the tent has been taken down and the home ventilated, the people who live there won't need to do a thing. No need to rinse dishes, wipe counters, or wash clothes. Okay, they'll need to do one thing: Clean up the corpses of all the bugs unfortunate enough to be caught inside the tent.
Bugs. Literally and figuratively, South Florida is crawling with them. Creepy little monsters of all shapes, sizes, phyla, genera, and species call this area home. University of Florida entomology professor Rudolf Scheffrahn, who made ripples in the bug world when he discovered a new strain of termite in Miami earlier this year, estimates that some 20,000 varieties of insects inhabit Florida, of which some 200 are considered pests. Despite the insecticide Malathion and citronella candles and flypaper and electronic zappers and crop dustings and bug bombs and lawn treatments and roach motels; despite Raid and Black Flag and Combat and Orkin and Terminix and Truly Nolen; despite Avon's "Skin So Soft" -- the tenacious little multilegged beasties continue to thrive in our subtropical climes, thumbing their antennae at our pathetic attempts to control them. They were here before us, and they'll be here long after we're gone. If their laughter were audible, we'd go deaf from the roar of their derision.
In fact our leading researchers in the war on bugs have abandoned all hope of actually eradicating insect pests and instead have set their sights on methods of "managing" them. "About two decades ago the USDA attempted to eradicate fire ants in the Southeast," relates Scheffrahn. "All they did was pollute the ground. There have been lots of failures trying to eradicate ants, termites, even Africanized honey bees. We've had some success eliminating small, recently introduced populations not native to this area, such as fruit flies. We combatted those by bombarding the population with sterile males and by luring them into traps baited with insect pheromones. But the bottom line is we have to learn to live with the existing pest population."
"Remember Jurassic Park?" asks University of Miami biology professor Peter Luykx. "You can find termite fossils millions of years old preserved in amber. They've been on Earth for anywhere from 200 to 300 million years, and they've been in South Florida ever since it's been dry land."
Mosquitoes. Ants. Spiders. Scorpions. Earwigs. Beetles. Wasps. Hornets. Gnats. No-see-ums. Bedbugs. Stinkbugs. Waterbugs. Bees. Fleas. Ticks. Mites. Moths. Centipedes. Millipedes. Grasshoppers. Crickets. Flies. Silverfish. Termites. You name the pests, it's a good bet we've got 'em. Hell, we've got a veritable cornucopia of roaches alone -- German roaches, brown-banded roaches, Australian roaches, smoky brown roaches, and American roaches (more commonly referred to by their quaint nickname, palmetto bugs). With the possible exceptions of California and Texas, no state offers sanctuary to more arthropods than sunny Florida.
"Any bugs you name, we have," declares Larry Weinberg, president of Guarantee/Floridian and regional director of the 50-year-old, 1100-member Florida Pest Control Association (FPCA), the statewide trade group that formed during the waning days of World War II.
"Larry should know," laughs FPCA spokesperson Melissa Reeves. "He's been around since bugs were invented." Reeves points out that her organization was instrumental in formulating the first legislation regulating pest-control operators in Florida. Back in 1947, 170 licensed exterminators operated in the state; today 2864 licensed firms employ more than 32,000 workers and generate some $1.3 billion in revenues (nearly one-third of the total billings for the entire nation).
That translates into a ton of dead bugs. "Roaches and ants are probably the two biggest pests facing South Floridians," reckons Michael Petrozzino, a one-time pest-control-company owner who now works for the Bureau of Entomology and Pest Control for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. "You've got chinch bugs and army worms that chew up lawns. Termites are a major headache because they threaten the structural integrity of a home, which is the biggest investment a person usually makes. People used to call exterminators for roaches probably more than any other problem, but ants have become a real problem. It's about a tossup nowadays."
Professional bug buster Raul Dominguez believes roaches have gotten a bum rap. "As far as their own personal hygiene, roaches are actually very clean," Dominguez proclaims. "They're always cleaning themselves. That's why some chemical treatments are so effective against them -- they walk across the powder, pick it up on their legs and antennae, and get it into their systems when they try to clean it off."
"There are some wasps that are excellent predators for cockroaches," contends UF's Scheffrahn. "But you can't tell a homeowner you're going to release a couple hundred wasps in his living room to get rid of the roaches. People don't want bugs in their houses, period."
And so we spray and we swat and we screen and we squish, and when the going gets really tough we call in a mercenary and we opt for the final solution: We tent.
The practice of paying a mercenary to come into one's home and wipe out pests dates back hundreds of years, when the unwanted intruders were four-legged rodents rather than six-legged insects. Experiments utilizing chlorine gas fumigation as a means of controlling termites were conducted as early as 1863, and a handful of exterminators pioneered hand-pumping arsenic-sulfur smoke from a charcoal-burning stove into termite colonies in 1903. The first commercial tent fumigation on record -- it used hydrogen-cyanide gas -- took place in California in 1935. (Safety, needless to say, was not the concern then that it is today.) Truly Nolen, Sr., founder of the pest-control empire that bears his name to this day, is widely credited with popularizing the tenting procedure in Florida in the late Thirties. (Legend has it that shortly after his arrival in Miami Beach in 1938, Nolen schlepped a caged rat door-to-door soliciting business.)
Today fumigation with tenting dominates the pest-control industry in South Florida. Guarantee/Floridian has four divisions overall, but three of them -- lawn spraying, subterranean termite control, and indoor pest control (ants, roaches, fleas, rats, et cetera) -- combined don't account for as much business as fumigation alone. "Tenting is basically only for drywood termites," clarifies Larry Weinberg. "It's too expensive to fumigate for roaches or ants."
But there is no shortage of drywood termites in Florida. They love it here. Powder-post beetles and old house borers occasionally infest homes in the area as well, the wood-eating beetles often arriving in unfumigated carved statues or furniture shipped in from the Caribbean islands or the Philippines. (Large-scale, established importers such as Pier 1 fumigate incoming wood as a standard precaution.) Once in a while, Weinberg deploys his troops to fumigate a home plagued by these exotic wood wolfers. But nine out of ten times when Guarantee/Floridian tents a home, termites are the target.
"Realtors refer about 70 percent of our fumigation jobs," explains Dominguez. "When you sell a house, you have to get a termite inspection, and lots of times that's when people discover they have a problem. Usually the house is empty and the realtor gives us the key, but sometimes the homeowners are there and they are all ticked off [no bug pun intended] because we found termites. They're afraid it's going to be a big hassle."
Quips UM's Luykx: "Termites were here before people. You have to realize that humans are the ones who decided to build their houses out of termite food." And that decision has proven very lucrative for exterminators such as Larry Weinberg, whose multicounty, four-truck, three-fumigator operation puts up an average of sixteen tents per day and takes down a similar number. (A crew of from three to five men work from each truck. Including administrative and clerical personnel, Weinberg's company employs 56 people.)
Termite inspections tied to real estate deals are only one of three common ways that Guarantee's clients discover they have a termite problem. More often they find little piles of teeny-tiny brown pellets -- termite droppings -- or they see swarms. The drywood termites themselves come in three flavors: workers and soldiers, which never emerge from inside their tunnels, and swarmers, which are winged potential queens looking for a place to start a new colony.
"When you have a swarm," cautions Dominguez, "that means you've had a colony for more than five years. When termites swarm, the males and females mate in midair. Then the female lands, drops off her wings, and looks for a place to burrow into wood. She's an egg-laying machine."
"You never see the workers or the soldiers, but if you see swarmers, you've got the rest," pronounces Weinberg with the fatalistic certainty of a doctor telling a patient the cancer has spread. "A lot of times people see the swarmers maybe two or three times and they won't see them again, so they think that they just went away. But they're always working, year-round. You just never see them. And you'll have swarmers again the next year [during swarming season -- April through June] if you don't do anything."
When a homeowner discovers pellets or swarmers, they call Weinberg's company and he dispatches an inspector. If the house does in fact have termites, the inspector recommends tenting and provides an estimate based upon the cubic footage of the house. "The bigger the house, the more gas you use, the more expensive it'll be," reasons Weinberg. "The average house costs between $500 and $750. We're talkin' about a house that's about 20,000 cubic feet. If there's heavy shrubbery around, it has to be trimmed back, or if there's a screened-in porch, the screening has to be removed. If there's a deck, you've got problems. With a fancy house the job becomes very difficult." And more expensive. Weinberg illustrates his point with a $3650 estimate for a 164,000 cubic foot mansion on Pine Tree Drive on Miami Beach.
Guarantee has undertaken some massive jobs over the years. According to general manager Richard Wagner, the company has tented everything from an antique car with wooden spoke wheels to hangars at the Opa-locka Airport: "We do trailers, mobile homes, boats. The Miami Shores Country Club."
"We did a two-story, four-block-long apartment building on 95th Street," Weinberg chimes in. "St. Patrick's Church on the Beach. We've done a lot of big jobs." He produces a handful of Polaroids of Guarantee crews swarming over the Carlyle Hotel on Ocean Drive. "This is a job we did on the Beach," he narrates. "Really big job. Needed a cherry picker or a crane. Dangerous stuff. Our insurance company don't want me to do that kind of job any more. Yeah, that was the Carlyle. And I never got paid for that job. I got stuck on that job. Remember this guy who was buying up a lot of hotels right as the Art Deco district cranked up? He bought like four or five hotels and then he went bankrupt? He owned the Carlyle. He owned the Cardozo. Stiffed everybody."
Once termites have been discovered and an estimate agreed to, Guarantee supplies homeowners with a list of house-preparation requirements. They range from the common-sensical ("All people must leave") to the less obvious ("Remove all mattresses and pillows with waterproof covers such as 'can't wet' mattresses for infants and sickrooms; if the waterproof cover is removable, it is only necessary to remove the cover"). Once a tenting has been scheduled and the homeowner's preparations completed, the actual setting up of the tent takes a little less than an hour. That's followed by a visit from a licensed fumigator such as Dominguez, who inspects the property one last time. Then he turns on the gas.
Weinberg, who rules his empire from behind a cluttered desk in a functional wood- and cork-paneled North Miami office, speaks in an unhurried monotone that occasionally calls to mind actor Walter Matthau. Sixtyish and balding on top with white hair along the sides, Weinberg sizes up visitors through hooded but discerning light blue eyes. His manner is polite but no-nonsense. In his left shirt pocket -- close to his heart -- he carries an unusual pen. It looks like a normal ballpoint, except that it's inscribed with the Vikane gas logo and contains an inch-long plastic tube half-filled with real termite pellets.
Photos of Weinberg's family vie for wall space with snapshots of tented buildings and certificates and citations from the Florida Pest Control Association, the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Structural Pest Control Board, and the Vikane Gas Fumigation Seminar. Clearly, Larry Weinberg takes pest control very seriously.
"I try to train my people not to say tenting is gonna kill everything," Weinberg cautions. "For the most part, Vikane does kill everything. Rats it'll kill. Cats it'll kill. But insects are another story. It doesn't take much of this gas to kill a rat or a mouse or a cat or a dog, but insects are different. I mean, if you have a nest of carpenter ants, the gas could kill 90 percent of them and they'll be layin' around dead. But there might be 10 percent of them still walkin' around. That's Vikane. Now, if you use methyl bromide, you'll probably get a better kill, but they're phasing that out because the EPA says it causes damage to the ozone layer. They're going to stop making it after the year 2000. Everybody's pretty much going with Vikane now.
"So what we tell people is that the gas is designed to kill termites," the veteran bug battler asserts. "Because there's no residual, the other bugs -- ants, palmetto bugs -- can come right back in the minute the tent comes down. Just like the people can come back in."
Still, the perception lingers that tenting a house is the pest-control equivalent of dropping the H-bomb. According to Dominguez, although the gas disperses quickly and there are no lingering zapping vapors once the tent is removed, the Vikane dispenses with more than just termites. "We sometimes find thousands of roaches," he says, describing fumigation's aftermath. "You can get rid of roaches for much cheaper, but the Vikane will pretty much kill whatever's in there. The most common thing we find after a tent is removed are carpenter ants. Recently we did a house in North Miami Beach and the entire perimeter of the house was covered with dead carpenter ants. They [the homeowners] didn't even know they had them. You could pick them up with a shovel."
And that's not all. "When you take the tent off, you never find dead termites [because they remain where they expire -- inside their tunnels in the wood]," Dominguez explains. "But once in Davie I found a nest of about 35 dead scorpions."
Both Dominguez and his boss have a warning for pet owners considering fumigation: Round up tabby well in advance of the exterminator's visit. "I fumigated this house one time and this lady had a bunch of cats she was feeding," Weinberg recalls. "The house was on piers, these little posts. Three days after we fumigated, she calls to complain about an odor. There was like 20 dead cats under there. I couldn't stand the smell. I started to gag. I had to run out into the street to breathe."
"I tell homeowners to secure their pets the day before we arrive," says Dominguez. "Especially cats. Once we arrive, they go crazy. Sometimes even the homeowners can't find them. If the family says, 'Well, I think my cat's outside,' forget it. In a case like that, I'll stop the process if there's any question."
"Opossums can be a real problem too," adds Weinberg. "There's lots of wild opossums around and they can really stink up a house, I'll tell you. Opossums get up into attics; cats nest underneath houses and have babies. If a cat's under a house in a crawl area, it's almost impossible to get it out."
As for unintentional people kills, Weinberg knows of only one horror story. "There was a death here about two years ago. The fumigator was at fault. It wasn't my fumigator," he emphasizes. "Two old ladies in a house. I think they were sisters. When the fumigator came to check the house, they were still inside. He told them, 'Well, when you leave, lock the door.' He came back a while later. The door was locked. He shot the gas in the house. But only one of the ladies had left, or they had both left but one came back. The neighbor heard this old lady in there trying to get out. By the time he was able to lift the snakes to get her out, it was too late. Which is not really the right way, you know? Right before you put the gas in, that's the time to check the house." (That same year the Miami Herald reported another tenting fatality, this one a 55-year-old Broward man who let himself into his apartment while it was being tented. Police found his nude body lying in the middle of the living room floor. His television set was on.)
"For the amount of fumigation we do," concludes Dominguez, "we have very few problems. Only one or two accidents in the ten years I've been doing it, and never anything involving humans still inside the house or anything like that."
Raul Dominguez arrives at the two-bedroom bungalow in Miami Shores where six hours earlier a Guarantee/Floridian crew removed the house's tent. All the windows are open, and ceiling fans whirl away, circulating fresh air throughout the place. The house has had plenty of time to, in fumigator lingo, "aerate itself."
Dominguez has come to conduct the postmortem. Like many of Guarantee's jobs, this house was referred by a realtor and has been vacant for a few days. The realtor has given Dominguez a key to the front door.
The fumigator assembles the safety kit he carries and wears into every freshly tented home: a flashlight, a self-contained breathing apparatus (an oxygen tank and mask similar to the type firemen wear), and a two-by-one-foot white Interscan box, the portable meter that draws air samples, breaks them down into parts per million, and tells Dominguez whether or not the Vikane has completely dispersed. Dominguez cuts an odd figure -- like something out of a postmodern science fiction movie -- as he enters the home clad in gray shorts and short-sleeved white Guarantee sport shirt. (Inhaling Vikane poses the only threat to humans; exposed skin is not a problem.) The sci-fi effect is heightened by the fact that he breathes through a mask on his face that's connected to a tank on his back, and that he carries the white box adorned with meters, gauges, dials, and lights.
Once inside he immediately notices five dark brown dots arranged in a tight circle in the center of the beige, short-pile living room carpet. Closer inspection reveals them to be the corpses of palmetto bugs, lying on their backs with their crooked little legs stretched in the air. "For some reason roaches usually come out into the middle of floors to die," muses Dominguez.
The fumigator thoroughly checks all of the house's nooks and crannies for the presence of Vikane. He is particularly careful around curtains. While doing a post-tenting house inspection in Little Haiti a few years ago, he opened one window's drapes and jostled loose a black widow spider, which fell onto his bare hand. The poisonous arachnid was still alive, but, luckily for Dominguez, too weak to bite. He preserved the spider in a jar of alcohol to serve as a reminder that he can never be too careful.
The house's kitchen and the two bedrooms yield nineteen dead German roaches and palmetto bugs, bringing the total roach kill for the house to an even two dozen. All the little brown buggies lie flat on their backs near the centers of the floors of the rooms in which they bought the farm. Dominguez does not bother to pick them up.
Next comes the home's adjoining carport, where a junked Camaro rusts away. The floor of the carport is littered with dead black pavement ants, all of them lying on their sides in the six-legged equivalent of the fetal position. Dominguez heedlessly crunches several of them underfoot as he tests the interior of the decomposing auto for Vikane. Just as Dominguez predicted, there is no sign of either Vikane gas or termites. The fumigator doffs the self-contained breathing apparatus and removes his equipment from the house. If he feels any remorse over his lethal handiwork, he doesn't show it.
Later, Dominguez pauses to reflect on a naive question from a curious homeowner: If the Interscan confirms that there is no Vikane gas left in the house, what assurance does the exterminator (or the homeowner) have that the termites are history? "We know we got a kill because the homeowners never call us back," he shrugs. And with that he politely breaks off the conversation. This is Florida, man. Raul Dominguez has a lot of bugs to kill.