By Michael E. Miller
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Sabrina Rodriguez
By Michael E. Miller
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Luther Campbell
By Kyle Munzenrieder
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.”
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.
With hurricane season once again upon us, Mother Nature could conspire to quickly defeat the entire endeavor. The alternative -- letting the disease run its course and become endemic -- is not pretty. And so, onward march the canker soldiers.
Like the plants it attacks, the disease has origins far from South Florida. Commonly known as Asiatic citrus canker, Xanthomonas axonopodis does not kill trees (nor is it harmful to the human body), but it causes rough brown splotches on leaves and fruit. Canker-infected lemons, limes, oranges, and grapefruits with lesions are edible, but so ugly they are difficult to market. A severe case can also cause a citrus tree to lose leaves and prematurely drop its fruit. Florida is a welcome haunt for these bacteria, which multiply rapidly, especially in hot, humid weather. “They're just waiting for water,” says Lou Lodyga, a pathologist for the Florida Department of Agriculture's division of plant industry. “You get driving rains and that spreads them like wildfire.” Scientists call trees with symptoms infected. Nearby trees are termed exposed.
This scourge, this shade-sucking, fruit-snatching curse, has wreaked havoc in Florida twice before. Beginning about 1910 the state spent six and a half million dollars to root out the first canker epidemic by slashing and burning infected trees. Workers also pruned leaves on exposed trees within 50 feet of a canker outbreak. Back then citrus groves generally were much smaller and more scattered. “They took really drastic action,” says Lavern Timmer of the University of Florida's Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred. “They burned everything, nurseries and groves. And they basically had people running around with flame throwers, dousing the trees with gasoline and burning them on the spot. And they disinfected everybody with mercuric chloride. I'm amazed some of the people lived through that.” These early terminators wiped out most of the canker by the Twenties and managed to subdue various flareups in the later Twenties and Thirties.
Xanthomonas axonopodis did not pop up again until the mid-Eighties. This time it posed a more substantial threat. The Sunshine State's population had swelled, and along with it, the likelihood that people and machines would inadvertently spread the bacteria. Moreover harvesting orange and grapefruit trees had bloomed into a multibillion-dollar industry that was concentrated in large central Florida groves. Plant pathologists stumbled on to the pathogen in the Sebring area northwest of Lake Okeechobee while looking for another, far less virulent strain. They traced the origin of the outbreak to a citrus inspector's home. “Apparently he had been doing some kind of experiments in his yard or something,” Timmer recounts. “And it spread to a grove.” Grove owner Ed Smoak promptly destroyed 400 acres of trees. “He just burned the whole thing,” Timmer adds. “The inspector had passed away before they ever found the canker there. So he was off the hook.”
For several years in the Eighties, Timmer studied citrus canker in northeastern Argentina, where the disease has been endemic for about 25 years. Citrus growers there and in southern Brazil must routinely spray their groves with copper compounds that suppress the disease. They also have difficulty exporting the fruit to nations with tight agricultural inspections.
The Floridian outbreaks of the mid-Eighties were confined to a few groves in rural areas in the central part of the state. Authorities took swift action. Basing its decision on South American research, the state defined all citrus trees within 125 feet of an infected specimen as exposed and promptly burned them. Disaster was again averted.
But the canker returned in the fall of 1995. Unfortunately this time it was detected in a yard near Galloway Road and West Flagler Street, where the chances of it spreading were high. “That was the start of this nightmare,” recalls Lodyga. Scientists suspect the infected plant arrived from Brazil or Argentina. With a $2.2-million budget and 120 employees, the state revived its citrus canker eradication program and imposed a quarantine on a fourteen-square-mile area encompassing Westchester and Sweetwater. Several dozen inspectors began to search for more canker in Miami-Dade and Broward. In 1996 officials informed legislators of the danger, but they only appropriated a million dollars for the effort. The following year they approved another three million.
That was not enough to finance the widespread inspections and removal required to stop the spread. Many legislators remained either ignorant of the impending catastrophe or unconcerned; some argued over who should foot the bill. In 1997 agriculture commissioner Bob Crawford tangled with Lawton Chiles when the former governor proposed forcing the citrus industry to tap into an emergency fund held by growers. That year the decision-makers were preoccupied with a more obvious problem: Mediterranean fruit flies, which burrow into fruit and vegetables and deposit larvae. In 1997 and 1998 the state spent $32 million dropping insecticides from airplanes onto farms and groves from Tampa to Orlando. The program saved millions of dollars in crops. Meanwhile rains and high winds were propelling airborne bacteria throughout South Florida. Beginning in 1997 growers in Collier, Hendry, Hillsborough, and Manatee counties reported outbreaks. Workers quickly destroyed hundreds of acres of trees.
Litigious citizens also hampered the effort. Miami lawyer John Ruiz filed a class-action lawsuit in October 1997 on behalf of a group of homeowners who wanted compensation for their hacked-up trees. A state judge agreed and barred the agriculture department from cutting down exposed trees (although workers could still chop infected trees). It wasn't until April 1999 that a Third District Court of Appeal panel overturned the ruling, saying trees exposed to the bacteria had no value. But by then the canker forces had lost eighteen months. Another summer of thunderstorms and hurricanes had spread the disease even more.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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!”