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.

More canker could arrive any day. A USDA investigation report released in May found lax inspection practices at seaports and airports in Miami and Fort Lauderdale, likely passages for whoever introduced the current strain of the pathogen in the early Nineties.

Another complaint common among the effort's detractors is the state's decision to compensate affected homeowners with $100 credit vouchers that can be used only at Wal-Mart nursery departments. So far the state has mailed 42,000 of them to homeowners, which will send $4.2 million of business to the Arkansas-based retailer. Half of the credits went to homeowners who qualified last year but did not receive the aid because funding dried up. The state has a total of seven million dollars in federal funds for the voucher program, dubbed Shade Florida.

Critics argue money should be channeled to small local nurseries that have endured losses in citrus tree sales owing to the quarantine. “First, [the legislators] should have tried to help local people, because we are the ones who are suffering,” fumes one local horticulturist who asked to remain anonymous. The state could easily issue coupons redeemable at a variety of stores, he adds. “Second, at Wal-Mart people have to pay twice the amount of money for a tree. And the selection at Wal-Mart is sometimes extremely poor in ornamental trees or in tropical fruits, compared to temperate zone fruits like peaches and pears.”

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

Like any emergency operation run by a government agency that relies on hundreds of new employees, the anti-canker effort is rife with inefficiency. On the morning of Thursday, June 8, Ricardo Polanco is orchestrating a series of chain-saw massacres in Carol City. Polanco, a former Target store manager, oversees four state employees, each of whom coordinates a team of four workers from Asplundh, a national firm that calls itself “the tree expert company.” He insists he has had no hostile encounters with enraged tree owners. “It's just like how we handled customer service at my store,” he explains. “It's all about the way you talk to them. They agree with you if you talk the right way.”

Polanco says his crews hit an average of 30 properties per day, cutting anywhere from 30 to 200 trees. In all about 350 cutting crews are now making the rounds, up from 60 a month ago. To date workers have jettisoned about 210,000 trees in Miami-Dade, most of them in the past few months, and another 34,000 in Broward. Yet Polanco acknowledges that, because of the sheer volume of work, trees that may be spreading the disease often remain standing for months after they are identified.

At a house on NW 186th Street, one of Polanco's underlings, 40-year-old Olive Taylor, is administering last rites to all eight of Maudlin Cummings's citrus trees, including a 25-year-old orange and a 40-year-old grapefruit. In a few minutes the Asplundh team renders her back yard shadeless. Cummings, a 61-year-old teacher at a nearby private elementary school, takes her loss in stride. But she has a few questions for Taylor, who joined the state citrus canker eradication program in January, after working as a medical assistant at a psychiatric hospital. “What they going to do with the roots?” Cummings asks in her Jamaican accent. Taylor says another crew will come with a machine to grind them up. “What do we get for the eight trees cut?” Cummings continues. Taylor gives her a telephone number for inquiries about the Wal-Mart voucher.

As Taylor heads toward the street, Cummings asks her why an orange tree in her neighbors' yard isn't being cut. A large white dog is chained to the trunk. “It hasn't been inspected yet,” Taylor admits. “We have to follow the list.” She gives the Asplundh crew the next address on a list drawn up by planners in the Plantation office. She hops in her white pickup truck and follows the Asplundh workers, who rides in two vehicles. When the cutters reach the property they find the trees have already been cut. They groan because this happens a lot. “It's embarrassing,” says Jorge Portillo, one of the Asplundh employees. Taylor suspects the residents disposed of the trees, which is a no-no under the quarantine. Or another cutting crew was already there.

When they encounter the same thing at the next two addresses on Taylor's list, the crew grows restless. Portillo thinks the operation would be far more effective if the cutters moved from yard to yard, removing citrus trees as soon as they are found. Some scientists also favor this approach, but so far agricultural officials prefer the current, more gradual method. “They are trying to maintain the public's favor,” says Bob McMillan, a University of Florida pathologist. “In our day and age we're caught between a rock and a hard place.” In addition a state law requires a five-day notification period before cutting can begin on someone's property.

Indeed state officials have made a priority of teaching their troops to be sensitive to the public. “Most residents are very attached to their trees and extremely upset about having to lose them,” writes public information director Richard Miranda in the Canker Anchor. “Some planted those trees ten, fifteen, even twenty years ago, and consider those trees part of the family. Taking these emotions into consideration in our daily dealings with the public makes our jobs a lot easier.” State workers offer examples of how the anti-canker incursions slice into tree owners' psyches. One employee observed a widow videotaping the dismemberment of a tree planted by her dearly departed husband. Another owner wrapped herself around the trunk of her tree when the cutting crew arrived. She moved when the chain saws were started up.

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