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.

Other people don't mind losing their trees. Down the street they find an orange tree in Enrique Gonzalez's back yard. Gonzalez is familiar with the situation; inspectors first came about a year ago. A copyeditor at a Christian publishing house, he's prepared to sacrifice his foliage for the greater good but hopes he'll be compensated. “If they pay me, it's all the same to me,” he says.

Delirus and Travieso trudge up the walkway of a small house on West 70th Terrace. Delirus has his cell phone clipped to a cloth hoop on his baggy blue jeans. Travieso sports off-white slacks and running shoes. “Buenos días, Departamento de Agricultura,” she sings out languidly in the 95-degree heat. “Good morning, Florida Department of Agriculture.” No one responds to several knocks on the door. Delirus walks over to a gate in a chainlink fence. It is locked. He whistles to make sure a dog isn't waiting in the back yard. None barks, so he nimbly jumps over the barrier. He quickly returns and reports the property has no citrus trees.

After lunch at a nearby McDonald's, Marichal's team is back on the streets for a tense afternoon. A series of knocks and shouts at a house on NW 30th Avenue goes unanswered, so Delirus shoves aside a bag of cement that is holding a wooden gate shut and follows Travieso to a section of yard running along one side of the home. Suddenly a window slides open.

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

“What are you doing!” screams an irate woman in Spanish. “Who said you could come in here?” Travieso tries to explain, but the tirade continues. “You don't have the right to enter a property. You have to inform someone first.”

“Yes, ma'am, that's why we knocked several times,” Travieso responds calmly.

“I was in the bathroom! I didn't hear anything!”

Travieso apologizes and offers her a form that outlines how to file a complaint.

“I don't want any form,” the woman replies and slams the window shut. Meanwhile Delirus has discovered a citrus seedling along the wood plank fence. He gives it a blast of yellow spray paint.

Nearby an elderly woman tells two other inspectors they cannot walk into her back yard. The inspectors call Marichal and soon two cops show up. They persuade the cantankerous senior to accept.

Homeowner obstinacy is not the only problem multiplied by the ever-expanding area of infection. So are the chances that inspectors will not spot signs of infection. “If symptoms occur in the tops of trees, it's easy to miss them,” notes Lavern Timmer of the University of Florida's Citrus Research and Education Center. “It's kind of a needle in a haystack thing.” It is also difficult to catch low levels of disease, he adds. “The [problem] is trying to detect it with so many trees scattered around and so many residences and citrus groves affected,” he continues. “This year they got a lot more funding, so they've got a lot more people than they've had in the past. If they could have done several years ago what they are doing now, this thing never would have gotten to the point it's gotten to. It's just hard to have enough people.”


Another problem is that U.S. Department of Agriculture enforcement officer Maria Amaya and her comrades in the agency's plant protection and quarantine division are having trouble getting through to landscaping companies and governments. As of mid-June authorities in Hialeah, the City of Miami, Miami-Dade County, and others had yet to sign an agreement to cooperate with federal and state agriculture officers and follow quarantine rules.

The quarantine is aimed at prohibiting people from taking citrus trees or parts of them, including fruit, out of the area. Landscapers, gardeners, and anyone else who comes in contact with the trees are supposed to disinfect themselves and their equipment afterward. But many remain ignorant or are pretending the rules don't exist in order to save money. One of Miami's biggest landscaping companies is flagrantly violating the quarantine, Amaya says, but she declines to identify the firm. She recalls that authorities escorted one of the company's crews out of a Broward municipality for refusing to comply with the regulations. Violators are subject to a wide range of fines. She declined to comment further.

Even the offices of Miami-Dade's agricultural extension service may have been infected. “We have had people bring us samples of citrus to see, not necessarily with canker,” crops specialist Carlos Balerdi reports. “We tell them the quarantine says they're not supposed to remove citrus from their property. And they say, “Oh, well, I think my problem is different.' This is what is very hard to get through to people.”

Many researchers are not optimistic about the possibility of enforcing a quarantine in Miami-Dade. “People say, “I pay taxes. I'll do what I want,'” observes Lodyga, the state pathologist. Effective or not the quarantine is likely to be a fact of Miami-Dade life for several years. Even after crews finish destroying all the citrus trees in the county, probably several months from now at the current rate, inspections must continue. “If inspectors find just one tree or seedling with canker,” warns state citrus canker eradication program spokesman Mark Fagan, “then the quarantine has to remain in place for another two years.”

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