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.

Finally, at another property, Taylor and her Asplundh team find some action. A heavy-set woman watches from a window as the workers dispatch with two trees at opposite sides of her back yard. They drag the spoils out to the edge of the street and pile them next to an old blue Buick sedan. “Where it get sick?” asks a young man with a Caribbean lilt. “You say it has cancer or something?”

“Canker,” Taylor corrects and shows him an infected leaf.

“All right, thanks,” he replies sadly.

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

Other residents who have yet to hear the sickening roar of the chain saws in their back yards have a false illusion that their trees are immune. On a recent day in Coral Gables inspectors Grisel Babea and Montel Howard found Emilio Rives at home. The energetic 80-year-old retired doctor was happy to give the inspectors a tour of the ten citrus trees in his yard. Several tangerine and orange trees, which he planted ten years ago, shade the lawn. There also is a small fountain pool there, which features a statue of a dolphin spitting a stream of water into it. More citrus trees lined the yard along one side of his house. “I don't think they are infected,” Rives says, noting agriculture employees visited about a year ago. Ten minutes later the inspectors bid the talkative Rives farewell. Out on the street Babea opens her hand and shows a small leaf. It has canker spots. “I couldn't tell him,” she confesses. “Most likely all ten of them will have to go.”

Increasingly the workers are heading north into Broward. One of them arrived at Maria and Lawrence Austin's small canalside house in North Lauderdale a month after an inspection crew identified their four citrus trees as exposed. When Maria, age 70, stepped out a side door and saw a group of nine men and women walking about her yard, she threw a fit. She yelled, paced back and forth on the lawn, grabbed garments from her clothesline, cried, and then repeated it all. As she did, an Asplundh crew member sliced the trunk of a four-foot-tall lemon tree with a flick of a chain saw and the plant tumbled over. He and his three accomplices then began to circle a huge 30-foot-tall grapefruit tree, eyeing its hefty branches.

“I have this tree for 24 years,” Maria exclaimed. “It's a beautiful tree. It no have no disease.” Four female agriculture inspectors stood nervously nearby. Maria continued: “It's my baby. I fertilized it.”

Also on hand was Mark Fagan, the public information officer. He tried to explain. “The tree may not look sick to you right now, but in a few months it will start losing its canopy and the fruit won't mature any more. It will drop to the ground,” Fagan says sternly. “And then the disease will spread another 1900 feet to other trees.”

“That is bullshit,” fumes Maria, barely stopping to listen. “I'm so mad I could scream. They just want us to buy the citrus from the groves!”

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