New Orleans pests beware: city’s mosquito, rodent and termite control board fights to make city’s buildings pest free

I’ve written several stories about how IPM changes the environment of a school or building when pests are no longer harassing the people inside the building. I’ve also passed along recommendations from specialists on how people can make buildings uninviting for pests. So when I went to New Orleans in April to help present a Friends of Southern IPM Implementer Award to the New Orleans Mosquito, Rodent and Termite Control Board, I wanted to see for myself how their work in IPM has changed the city.

The Board received the Friends of Southern IPM award at the April 10 New Orleans City Council meeting. Riegel and L.J. Kabel, one of her staff members, received honorary proclamations as well.

The day before the award, I shadowed Phil Smith, an IPM inspector with the Board. Our first stop is a firehouse in downtown New Orleans for the monthly inspection of insect sticky traps and the residents’ compliance to the IPM recommendations the Board gave them a year ago.

“This is going to be the good example,” Smith says.

As we check the outside of the building, Smith points to a few holes in the ground next to the building.

“Those are rat burrows,” he tells me. We see no rats when he pokes his finger into the holes. I breathe a small sigh of relief, as I’ve heard about the size that rats can be in New Orleans.

Inside the garage, where the fire truck waits for its next call, a lone cockroach lies on its back next to the trash can. The garage is clean and uncluttered. A couch sitting in front of a TV is crumb and splatter-free. The inside of the house, where the firemen eat and sleep, is also clean.

The Board has been working with the firemen for about a year, Smith says, and the men are listening. Of the six sticky traps we check, only one has anything larger than a small fly, and they’re wolf spiders. Predators.

The fire chief says he hasn’t seen a rat in a while. IPM seems to be working for them.

As Smith finishes his inspection, Claudia Riegel, the Board’s director, joins us. Smith shares his discovery of the rat nests, and after Riegel inspects them, she surmises that the holes are no longer active.

The Board was originally created in 1964. Swarms of the tan salt marsh mosquito, Aedes sollicitans, plagued the City of New Orleans.  Efforts centered around eliminating breeding sites, ditching (source reduction), and educating the public. In December 1964, the Board got its first director, George T. Carmichael.

Riegel earned an undergraduate degree at Purdue University, a Master’s at the University of Georgia, and a Ph.D. from the Entomology and Nematology Department at the University of Florida in 2000. Directly out of school, she was hired by Dow AgroSciences and moved to Louisiana.  In February 2004, she decided to focus on Formosan subterranean termites and became Principal Research Entomologist for the City of New Orleans Mosquito and Termite Control Board.  In 2006, she became Assistant Director, and in 2010 she was promoted to Director of the department.

After months of treating the same buildings, she started to observe the conditions that were keeping her from successfully ridding the buildings of pests: cluttered rooms, uncovered trash, uncontained food, and openings in the buildings’ exterior that allowed pests easy routes in and out. She changed her focus: close the pathways and dispose of the attractants to keep pests from entering in the first place, before any insecticide is used. So she started teaching city employees about IPM. The Board employees were well versed in IPM and had adopted these methods from the start of the program.

At first her message was not well received. Most city employees assumed a defensive posture when she would visit a building a list the problems and suggest solutions. Too much work, they said; too much money. As she worked alongside maintenance staff to fix cracks and clean areas, and worked with other staff to organize clutter, employees began to see a difference. No more rats. Fewer cockroaches. Buildings that were kept clean and organized had hardly any pests at all.

Now as director, she touts IPM as the Board’s mission, and I see her passion for the message as we enter our next building—a small public library joined to an elementary school in the Ninth Ward. Hurricane Katrina was harsh on the Ninth Ward, and many public buildings that weren’t destroyed were inexpensively patched up. Often the patches didn’t cover openings in the building that allowed rodents and cockroaches easy entrances and exits, so the tenants constantly have been battling infestations.

Such was the case with the library. As the manager shows us to the staff room behind the library, Smith and Riegel point out a huddle of files and grime on the floor near a small table. Sticky traps on the floor are filled with American cockroach carcasses and mouse fur. Smith also picks up and discards several D-con baits, pellet baits that the EPA declared illegal several months ago.

The library manager insists that their pest control company had just visited to take care of the roaches and the mice. Riegel has tried to convince him in the past to let her staff do a full IPM inspection but has met with resistance. Now the presence of out-of-town strangers seems to shame him into thinking about change, but he still blames the problem on the school next door.

The principal of the adjoining elementary school is no more receptive than the library manager. This week is testing week for the students, so no visitors are allowed in the school building. So after explaining how we got past the hall guards and into the main office, Riegel explains that she wants to come back another day to do a full IPM inspection.

“We don’t have any mice or roaches here,” the principal tells her. “They’re in the library and outside, but they don’t come in here.”

Riegel tries to reason with her, telling her that she is just trying to help, to keep the Board of Health from shutting down the school if they find a rat. That gets the principal’s attention.

After more than half an hour of arguing with the principal, Riegel gets the principal’s permission to come back another day.

Riegel faced similar resistance when she started introducing IPM to the schools in 2010. Public school leadership did not want to do the extra work to do repairs or buy traps. So Riegel began talking to charter school principals. A newly hired principal at John McDonogh High School accepted her offer to help.

John McDonogh High School had remained in disrepair after Hurricane Katrina, so damage from the storm, combined with the building’s structure, made the building the perfect rodent hangout. Smith noted in an annual report that a series of air conditioning pipes encased with aluminum functioned as a “rat superhighway” and gave rats access to the classrooms. During an interview by National Public Radio reporters, the principal said that teachers had to knock on the doors to the classrooms in the morning to give the rats time to scatter.

Repair and cleanup on the school took every single Board staff member, school and community members and pest control company staff. One year later, over 350 windows were repaired, holes and cracks were sealed and staff and students were trained on how to dispose of food properly. Scoring on a school IPM measuring tool developed by specialists at Texas A&M University gave the school a D before repairs. After the repairs, the grade jumped to an A+.

Since the intervention at John McDonogh, two additional charter schools have been working with the Board to implement IPM. Riegel also continues to pursue managers of city buildings who have been reluctant to do the work that IPM requires, and often her efforts pay off.

In a large building in Mid-Citythat houses a senior center and a day care center, previous managers and maintenance staff have refused to clean underneath appliances in the two kitchens, leaving food and grease to form a paste that provides cockroaches with a lifetime of food. Our visit to the kitchens reveals a film of grime on the floor, the smell of which is masked only by the overwhelming smell of gas.

After Riegel and Smith finish their pest inspection, they ponder about what to do about the gas. Smith lights the pilot lights, and the smell begins to dissipate. But a possible leak could have serious consequences for whoever is in the building, and children’s voices echo from the room next to one of the kitchens.

Reigel weighs her options—report the building to the fire department or leave the situation alone. Technically the leak is not a pest problem, but her conscience won’t let her leave it alone. She calls the fire department.

The manager of the building is relatively new, and rather than being upset about Riegel’s visit, she is interested in Riegel’s suggestions about getting rid of the pest issues. She listens to the fire marshall’s instructions about the old gas stove and tells Riegel that she would like her to come back and inspect the building. Riegel leaves with more hope than she has had in the past.

“I love this city, and I want the people to be safe,” she says as we drive back to the Board’s office.

Everyone on the staff of the New Orleans Mosquito, Rodent and Termite Control Board is working hard to make that happen.

You can view the award presentation and the City Council meeting at, time 27:30.

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