By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
A Chinese pathogen has the citrus industry talking apocalypse.
On July 11, the U.S. Department of Agriculture delivered some much-needed good news to Florida's recently battered citrus growers. In its final estimate for statewide citrus output in 2008, the agency expected the industry to produce 168 million boxes of oranges and grapefruit, a 30 percent increase over last year.
But the champagne bottles will stay corked in Florida groves. Despite this year's posthurricane bounce-back in production, the threat of huang long bing (HLB), or citrus greening disease, is casting a rapidly deepening shadow over the state's iconic fruit. As greening spreads west (it was discovered last week in Tijuana, Mexico), local farmers are just beginning to understand the existential nature of the bacterial threat.
"A year ago, we were just getting our heads around greening," says Michael Sparks, chief executive of Florida Citrus Mutual, the state's industry association. "Now it's clear this thing is stronger and more troubling than anything we've encountered in the past. It's bigger than canker. We could lose citrus in Florida. It's that big."
HLB, first discovered in China, is the deadliest and least understood pathogen in the citrus world. Spread by insects, it hibernates like HIV before striking like ebola, killing trees from the inside and transforming oranges and grapefruit into sickly, dry, and deformed green orbs. In a macabre touch, the disease turns citrus seeds black. There is no cure; infected plants must be uprooted and destroyed.
First detected in Florida a decade ago, HBL in 2007 spread to all 30 of the state's citrus growing counties, with the worst infections located in the south.
"We estimate that the disease has established itself in between 12 and 20 percent of all citrus trees in the state," says Denise D. Feiber, of the Florida Department of Agriculture's Division of Plant Industry. "We tell growers that if it isn't in their groves yet, it's likely on the way, or they just haven't tested thoroughly enough."
Terrified, the industry has begun to mobilize. Sparks speaks of a "Citrus Manhattan Project" currently under way in labs across the state, funded mostly by local growers. This December, Orlando will host a conference called Reaching Beyond Boundaries, which will bring together citrus scientists from around the world to share experiences and craft a globally coordinated defense strategy.
"In three years, my budget has gone from $1.5 to $20 million, fueled by the growth of HLB," says Steven Rogers, scientific coordinator for the Florida Citrus Production Research Advisory Council, the state agency that oversees citrus research. "HLB is a force to contend with, and there is a lot of work to do. We need help from the National Academy of Sciences and from scientists around the world to combat this."
HLB is also found throughout Asia and Latin America, including fellow hemispheric citrus giant Brazil, which together with Florida produces most of the world's orange juice. Says Sparks: "If Florida and Brazil go down, you're talking about the end of orange juice as we know it."
Bailing Out Junior
Once again, John Timoney is the exception to the rule.
Police Chief John Timoney might be Miami's ultimate enforcer, but he has demonstrated a knack for flouting the rules. Last year, he helped himself to a free SUV from Lexus of Kendall, violating several departmental policies.
Timoney's most vocal critic, Fraternal Order of Police president Armando Aguilar, says the pattern goes at least as far back as 2005. On November 1 of that year — three days after Timoney's son Sean was arrested for allegedly trying to buy 400 pounds of marijuana in Spring Valley, New York — Miami's top cop and his wife Noreen put up their $256,000 condo at 1717 N. Bayshore Dr. as collateral to bond their son out. By doing so, Timoney violated the spirit, if not the letter, of a departmental rule that prohibits police officers from bailing anyone out of jail, Aguilar says.
On December 12, 2005, after pleading guilty to conspiracy to distribute marijuana, Sean remained free on bail until his sentencing hearing nearly a year later. He served 18 months in federal prison until his release this past May.
In arguing for leniency, Sean's attorney, Ed Hayes, told Judge Thomas McAvoy that his client's father — a former deputy commissioner in the Big Apple — was unable to spend more time with his son growing up because he was busy turning "the tide in New York City" during the early Nineties, when crime finally began to decline.
"I understand that it is his son," Aguilar says. "But what is good for the goose is good for the gander. The chief has fired officers for violating departmental policies he chooses to ignore."
The accusation comes at a rough time for the chief, who is still under fire for accepting the free Lexus, which he drove for the better part of a year before disclosure of the gratis SUV prompted him to return it. In addition to his being sanctioned and fined by the Miami-Dade and state ethics commissions, the city's Civilian Investigative Panel last week found that Timoney broke departmental rules including a ban on accepting gifts, guidelines on how to deal with the news media, and a requirement for officers to be truthful.
Aguilar says Timoney's decision to post bail for his son is just the latest example of the chief's unethical behavior. According to Miami Police rules and regulations, officers and civilian employees "shall not become surety or guarantor or furnish bail for any person arrested for a crime except upon authorization of his commanding officer." In the case of the chief, there was no one to go to for permission but himself.
And that, Aguilar says, is not fair, considering Timoney fired two black female cops for allegedly violating a rule that prohibited them from marrying convicted felons. One of those officers, April Hardemon, appealed the chief's decision and won her job back.
Timoney declined comment, but police spokesman Delrish Moss says the chief is not breaching the department's bail ban. "For one, it doesn't apply to blood relatives," Moss explains. "Secondly, permission has to be granted by the commanding officer. [Timoney] is the commanding officer."
While you get towed, Miami Beach gets paid.
In Miami Beach, few businesses are loathed as much as the city's two aggressive towing companies: Tremont Towing and Beach Towing. Dan Sostheim's story won't help their popularity.
A few weeks ago, the South Beach transplant parked his bright orange Hummer H2 on Meridian Avenue around midnight. He didn't know his residential parking pass had just expired. When he returned to get the vehicle the next morning, it was gone.
He made a few phone calls, found out Tremont took the truck, and headed over to the shop on Bay Road. Employees informed him that in order to claim it, he'd have to pay a fee and show a current registration or title.
But when he reached into his glove compartment for the papers, he found the registration was "mysteriously missing."
With no papers, the company would be able to hold his automobile at a storage fee of $26.70 per day until he could prove it was his. For Sostheim, this meant racking up more charges over the weekend, until the DMV opened Monday. He suspected foul play.
"The whole thing stinks from top to bottom," he tells Riptide.
So Sostheim called Miami Beach Police to the scene to help him verify the truck was indeed his. When police arrived, an officer told him there was nothing he could do because the conflict was a civil matter. "How can the police department be trumped by a towing company?" Sostheim says. "It doesn't make sense."
Since January 1, eight reports have been made with the MBPD over stolen items at Tremont; 10 if you count informal phone calls. Overall incident reports at that address in the same period add up to 286 — or about 1.7 per day.
Sgt. Wayne Jones says the numbers don't surprise him. "It's a towing company. It would be unfair to single out one as worse than the other," he says.
Tremont management argues proof of ownership should be easily faxed by an insurance company. "There are cameras everywhere. There's no reason for us to steal," says Euidu, a 15-year employee of Tremont who wouldn't give his last name.
Since 2002, the City of Miami Beach has collected $25 for every car towed on public property. The money goes back to the city's parking fund to pay for things such as road maintenance, street signs, and employee salaries. Sostheim says the policy encourages the city to look the other way when towing companies are abusive.
"Nobody's thinking of the people who live on this little island," he says. "I'm moving. It's too ridiculous."