Oct. 20, 2005 -- The Formosan subterranean termite is a pest so formidable that even a hurricane can't bring it down.
Known as "super termites," the insects can hold their breath for up to 16 hours underwater, they're good at finding tiny air pockets in the soil to breathe once grounds are soaked and they can retreat to aboveground portions of their elaborate nests to wait out a storm.
That said, this hurricane season in New Orleans appears to have struck at least a temporary blow to the city's infestation problem. Before Hurricane Katrina and subsequent flooding in the city, New Orleans and Lake Charles, La., hosted the most serious infestations of this voracious termite in the nation. Early testing suggests Katrina penetrated some of these populations.
But experts say any immediate drop in the insect's population will likely be met by a termite boom in the years to come. And now the insect has the perfect opportunity to spread.
Hurricane Mess Offers Termite Heaven
"We have found dead termites, so it appears many have drowned," said Gregg Henderson, an entomologist and termite guru at Louisiana State University, who dug up previously buried test crates packed with old wood last week in New Orleans to see how the insect's numbers were looking. "But there are also thousands of survivors and they will thrive."
Since Hurricane Katrina devastated the region, Henderson explains, the area has become termite heaven -- a virtual termite buffet -- packed with moist debris, including soaked homes and downed trees. This material provides the insect with its main food: cellulose.
"In the first year or two, we'll see a lower population," said Henderson. "But survivors will find new places to nest with plenty of food so that by year three, there could be a population explosion."
What's more, as cleanup continues, infected debris could be transported to other regions and cause the infestation to spread.
"Houses are going to be demolished, trees will be cleared; what do you do with all of this cellulose?" asked Dennis Ring, another entomologist at LSU. "People might also want to use salvageable wood and furniture in homes in other states. That poses a huge problem."
World War II Veteran
The Formosan subterranean termite got its original foothold in the United States by hitching a ride with people. It's believed the bugs arrived aboard military transport ships returning from Asia after World War II. Since then, the insects have spread to much of the Southeast as people reused old railroad ties and telephone poles that had been infested. While the insect has spread, it has not saturated most of the Southeast -- yet.
At entomologists' urging, the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry imposed a quarantine on Oct. 3 for the termite in infested parishes. This bars anyone from selling or reusing wood from the area until it is fumigated.
Henderson is confident the quarantine will work to limit spreading of infested material for commercial purposes, but preventing individuals from, say, moving their old couch to their new home in Atlanta, is more problematic.
"For homeowners, the quarantine is hard to enforce, it's more of a plea to make them aware," he said.
Meanwhile, one of the most famous neighborhoods in New Orleans, the French Quarter, could now host higher populations since it was mostly spared from flooding after Hurricane Katrina. Nan Yao Su, an entomologist at the University of Florida who has worked to try and reduce the termite's damage in New Orleans over the past five years, fears the historic Spanish-style buildings in the quarter are now at higher risk.
"It's lucky the buildings did not have flooding," he said. "But now there is a tremendous increase in activity there. They [the termites] probably migrated from wet to dry areas."
Since the insect chews its way through wood mostly out of the eye's view, the extent of any post-hurricane termite boom may take a few years to realize. By then, Nan Yao Su fears, it may be too late for many structures.