Hurricane Harvey: The floods, the wind — and the mosquitos

Photo by Erik F. Brandsborg / Flickr

America’s response to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria has been nothing short of heroic. I’ve just returned from touring the areas most affected in Texas and met some of our nation’s finest public servants responding to this unprecedented natural disaster.

As a former commanding general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who led disaster recovery efforts, most recently after Super Storm Sandy, I’ve seen firsthand the American people’s resilience to overcoming adversity.

Communities in Florida, Texas and Puerto Rico will absolutely rebuild.

My serious concern is that we ignore a looming threat, one that is invisible right now but will potentially pack a potent punch in the near future. This menace exists in the form of a mosquito: Aedes aegypti, the primary transmitter of Zika, dengue, yellow fever and other diseases.

The Zika crisis last year provides a small glimpse into the damage this mosquito can inflict. These mosquitos can benefit from large-scale upheaval of urban environments, but rarely is considered a priority public health concern in the aftermath of a natural disaster. It should be, however: Aedes aegypti thrives in metropolitan areas and its females’ preference for biting humans to secure blood necessary to produce fertile eggs has led to breeding in and around our homes, office buildings and schools. The eggs require only ounces of water to hatch into larvae, allowing this menace to thrive in a post-hurricane environment.

Research shows that mosquito-borne diseases spike within 18 months after hurricanes. Dr. Peter Hotez, the dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, warns that mosquito breeding sites and population will rise once floodwaters recede. Following Hurricane Katrina, cases of West Nile virus increased considerably in affected regions of Louisiana and Mississippi.

As FEMA trailers pack up and leave, and as people begin to rebuild their lives, this invasive mosquito species will begin exacting a significant toll. It has the potential over the following months and years to become as dangerous for people as the storms themselves.

That is, unless we take concerted action now.

As Congress prepares to fund reconstruction efforts, additional actions are necessary to combat the growing threat of mosquitoes and help dampen the consequential and long-lasting health challenge. The Texas congressional delegation and lawmakers in Austin should play an outsized role in this debate.

First, we must bolster our commitment to controlling this mosquito. Our current response, a mixture of chemical fogging, issuing free cans of insect repellent and posting warning signs, hardly employs the 21st century tools we need to secure a decisive victory against this enemy. A national strategy of aggressive and innovative mosquito control efforts led by federal and state authorities is required.

Second, it is long past time to establish a National Center for Vector Control, an interagency coordination group marshaling resources from across the government that manages and strengthens aggressive mosquito control measures. New legislation introduced in Congress highlights this as a priority, but funding will be critical. This new center can also coordinate post-disaster mosquito-control efforts — a much-needed capacity we do not currently manage well.

Third, Congress needs to provide the resources necessary to make significant improvements to our vector-control infrastructure throughout the states hit hardest by hurricanes, which are also the states most affected by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. In 2016, Congress passed a $1.1 billion supplemental appropriation, but very little was allocated for vector control and virtually nothing for new tools to combat mosquitoes. Yet a significant amount of this funding went to developing a vaccine that will take years to develop, if it’s successful at all.

Fourth, we must get proven innovations to market faster. My experience in combat and with recovery from disasters is that federal agencies find a way to work quickly to provide soldiers, civilians and communities with the support they require. Bureaucratic red tape virtually disappears. We must extend that same expediency to advancing new methodologies, innovations and vaccines to the field. Unfortunately, years of delay in providing regulatory approval of innovative solutions are tolerated. Lack of expeditious action by the federal government limits access to new innovations for populations under threat, and this must change if we want to secure different outcomes.

Meanwhile, nighttime aerial insecticide spraying over large parts of Houston to counter mosquito proliferation continues, with residents warned to stay indoors during these operations. In partnership with local officials, we must strive to update our toolset and modernize how we manage interventions.  

As we prepare to rebuild Florida, Texas and Puerto Rico, we need to remind ourselves of the need to support our fellow Americans as they transition from recovery to resiliency. Sooner than we imagine, the next super storm will be here, and as we strengthen our disaster response capabilities, we must also bolster efforts to prevent the mosquito-borne disease outbreaks that typically follow in their wake.

Thomas Bostick

SVP, environment sector, Intrexon