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.

In fact the bacteria were circulating more rapidly than most scientists expected. Last fall a U.S. Department of Agriculture pathologist, Tim Gottwald, discovered that in Florida's hot, humid, and windy conditions Xanthomonas axonopodis sometimes travels several thousand feet by air. The state threw out the 125-foot rule and established a new distance. Trees within 1900 feet, or roughly one square block, would be considered exposed.

While Mother Nature took major action, legislative bodies did not. “There wasn't enough money to get the thing under control,” laments Carlos Balerdi, a tropical-fruit-crops specialist at the Miami-Dade Cooperative Extension Service in Homestead. Balerdi, who relays research and regulations to growers in South Florida, blames legislators in Tallahassee and Washington for not responding swiftly and broadly. “Now it's about four and a half years after the initial infection and you [finally] see the funding coming,” Balerdi chides. “It's too late for this county.” Lavern Timmer concludes that society's penchant for reacting to disasters rather than preventing them also was at work. “When the problem doesn't look very big, it's hard to stir up enough interest to generate money,” he ruminates. “When it looks like you have impending disaster, it's a lot easier to do that. It's more human nature than anything.”

Balerdi also thinks owners of central Florida's large groves, whom the current eradication is aimed at protecting, should have pressured public officials sooner. “They did not realize it was a very serious problem for them,” Balerdi observes. “By the time they reacted, it was getting very close to them.” In late May pathologists discovered new canker infections in a Palm Beach County lime operation, the closest outbreak yet to the Indian River groves, which are among the world's biggest suppliers of grapefruit.

Lawrence Ausin witnesses the execution of his 24-year-old pink grapefruit tree
Kirk Nielsen
Lawrence Ausin witnesses the execution of his 24-year-old pink grapefruit tree
The state supervises private-sector workers who can't wait to slice, chip, and grind citrus trees into oblivion
Steve Satterwhite
The state supervises private-sector workers who can't wait to slice, chip, and grind citrus trees into oblivion

The canker police action has not gone well. With the epidemic swirling out of control more than four and a half years after the initial detection, authorities finally intensified the operation in February when Gov. Jeb Bush declared Miami-Dade and Broward state disaster areas. U.S. Department of Agriculture secretary Dan Glickman added the word “federal” to that designation a month later. And in April Glickman's Sunshine State counterpart Bob Crawford widened the quarantine to include an area from Florida City to the Palm Beach County line and from the Naples area to north of Tampa. Then directors of the state's canker eradication program finally chucked an antiquated method they had used to map exposed and infected trees. (“It was an administrative nightmare,” according to one USDA official.) They began instituting the Incident Command System (ICS), a strategy the U.S. Forest Service uses to battle catastrophic wildfires. Under ICS planners assign supervisors to a six-square-mile area (known as a “range” on land survey maps). One supervisor manages several strike team leaders, each of whom in turn oversees about a dozen inspectors. In all about a thousand of these surveyors are on the streets.

Had the bacterial outbreaks been fires, Miami-Dade County would probably be burned to a crisp. Yet eradication workers, most of whom receive about ten dollars per hour and come from diverse backgrounds, press on. “We must be able to adapt and overcome whatever obstacles that we face,” writes incident commander David Utley in his employee newsletter titled Canker Anchor, “to accomplish the mission of removing approximately 750,000 to a million citrus trees over the next year.”

Utley's chief spokesman, Richard Miranda, who spent most of the Nineties serving with U.S. Army special operations forces, says only “an act of God” will prevent completion of the task. “We are in a state of emergency down here,” he says.

And so, on a sweltering morning in May, division supervisor Andres Piñero, age 23, drives a state-owned white pickup truck from Plantation headquarters to his staging area, a Winn-Dixie supermarket parking lot in Hialeah. Leaders of his eight anti-canker inspection units arrive in white vans. They all wear white polo shirts, the citrus canker army uniform. After a fifteen-minute session to identify their areas of deployment, they are back in their vehicles, fanning out across a residential section of northwest Hialeah. Over the past two weeks they have located dozens of citrus trees and spray-painted X's on them (yellow for exposed and red for infected); all will have to be cut down. Their only weapon: a state law that allows them to enter yards without permission and makes impeding their work a misdemeanor. Their only olive branch: a $100 voucher that residents who lose trees can use at Wal-Mart.

By midmorning Miladis Marichal and her thirteen inspectors are in the vicinity of West 70th Street and 31st Avenue. Joshua Delirus, a 24-year-old former supermarket stockman, is paired with Isis Travieso, a 32-year-old ex-medical clerk. Both have been on the frontlines for six months. Already this morning they have documented two instances of what is known in official nomenclature as owner refusal. Complying with a time-consuming protocol they notified their supervisor, Marichal, who contacted Piñero, who called Miami-Dade police. After the cops arrived, the residents quickly acquiesced.

Some citizens pretend they are not home, while others offer far-fetched excuses to keep the inspectors away. “Sometimes people say, “I can't let you in because I'm not the owner,' but they are the owner,” Travieso reports. “Or they'll say they can't open the gate because they lost the key.” One resident tried to thwart an inspection by insisting it would disturb her dog, who was recovering from surgery.

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