Anatomy of a Quarantine

State officials are spending millions of your tax dollars to stop citrus canker. And they're making a mess of it.

Mabel is just another member of the fruit-loving resistance. A 54-year-old snowbird who long ago moved south from Greendale, New York, to Allapattah, she has a big smile and, like many of her neighbors, a steely distrust of anyone entering her property. Her small leafy yard is adorned with three junked cars and shaded by orange and grapefruit trees. On this steamy day in June, she walks alongside her old one-story wooden house and shows a rather unconventional welcome mat to two unexpected visitors, Florida agriculture department employees Miladis Marichal and Pedro Buzzi, who glance at each other nervously. Her bienvenidos consists of a two-by-three-foot square of plywood with dozens of protruding nails. Were Mabel not home, the inspectors might have injured themselves on their way to look at the sour orange tree in the back yard.

When Marichal and Buzzi amble toward the front, they meet another obstacle: Mabel's boyfriend. A bearded man in shorts, T-shirt, and black Keds, he says he is an antique dealer, but declines to reveal his age or name. “People were coming into the yard to take the fruit,” he recalls, snickering. “One night I looked out and saw a woman walk out of the yard and down the street. She was limping.”

Then the conversation turns to the state's war on citrus canker, Florida's most extensive agricultural emergency in decades. Officials insist the eradication program is necessary to protect the state's $8.5 billion citrus industry, but Mabel's beau views it as just another governmental intrusion: “Every day we lose rights by the second,” he snorts. He says he has two handguns in the house, then adds wryly that their use would not be warranted on unsuspecting agriculture inspectors. “When you shoot, you have to shoot to kill,” he explains. “And that's right between the eyes.” Then, leaning back on a long wooden bench against one of Mabel's two bombed-out Audis, he quotes from a Metallica song: “Halls of justice painted green/Money talking/Power wolves beset your door/Hear them stalking/Soon you'll please their appetite/They devour/Hammer of justice crushes you/Over power.”

Photos by Kirk Nielsen
Mabel Tower shows her nail-embellished welcome mat in Allapattah; a morose Maudlin Cummings tries to get used to her denuded yard in Carol City
Photos by Kirk Nielsen
Mabel Tower shows her nail-embellished welcome mat in Allapattah; a morose Maudlin Cummings tries to get used to her denuded yard in Carol City

With a hot, humid day ahead, this is not what Marichal and Buzzi want to hear. But it could be worse. Some of their fellow grunts in the state's 1500-member anti-canker infantry have confronted more dangerous circumstances. Back on March 28, 95-year-old Nelson Edwards refused to let a crew cut down a grapefruit tree in his yard in Tamarac. When a Broward County cop arrived, Edwards disappeared inside his house and emerged with a rifle. As he pointed it at the officer, an agriculture inspector sneaked up and snatched the firearm. Nelson was charged with aggravated assault and released on $5000 bail. He pleaded guilty in May and received one year of probation. Then there was the incident on June 1 at a house on SW Seventh Street near 120th Avenue in Miami-Dade, in which two inspectors were confronted by a middle-age man holding a .45 automatic. Four Miami-Dade cops convinced the man to allow the inspection. No charges were filed. Finally on June 20, just a few miles south, 57-year-old Jesus Lopez was arrested and charged with obstruction of justice after he threatened to shoot two inspectors. He is awaiting trial.

Mabel may be less militant than Edwards or Lopez, but she is nonetheless prickly. She stretches out an arm and leans her hand against the trunk of an orange tree. “What I disagree with is not the fact that the government wants to cut my trees down,” she complains. “It's the fact that the government can come on to my property without my permission.” She also wants just compensation. “They should replace every citrus tree with a mango tree or a flowering tree. To preserve the shade.”

Buzzi shakes a can of yellow spray paint and leaves an X on the trunk of the sour orange. Although none of her four trees shows symptoms of canker -- little brownish burnlike spots on the leaves -- Marichal tells Mabel a cutting crew will return soon to chop them all down and haul them away.

What Mabel and thousands like her don't know is the demise of millions of citrus trees might have been avoided. Back in 1995 a state pathologist discovered a tree infected with canker in a yard in west Miami-Dade. The disease was not very widespread. But while bureaucrats dithered, legislators ignored the problem, and angry residents sued, several summers of hurricanes, thunderstorms, and at least one tornado blew the bacteria across much of Miami-Dade and Broward counties. On top of it all, landscaping companies, clueless about the need to disinfect workers and equipment with antibacterial spray, also helped spread the canker. Late last year the U.S. Congress came to the rescue.

Had state authorities acted swiftly and extensively four and a half years ago, scientists say, they could have averted the daunting epidemic now confronting them and saved much of the projected $175-million-dollar cost of eradication. Now they are scrambling to manage an increasingly cumbersome force comprising inexperienced recruits who labor under complicated work rules and excessive layers of management. Skeptical residents, already upset about losing their beloved fruit trees, scoff at a compensation program that funnels millions of public dollars to Wal-Mart.

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