Canker Sore

State workers are cutting down homeowners' citrus trees to save Florida's fruit industry. It's a South Florida chain saw massacre.

Xanthomonas axonopodis did not pop up again until the mid-'80s. That 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 onto 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 Smoke 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 '80s, 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-'80s 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.

Xanthomonas, we presume?
Steve Satterwhite
Xanthomonas, we presume?
After a day of patrols, anticanker forces retreat to bases in Plantation, Homestead, and (pictured) Miami-Dade
Steve Satterwhite
After a day of patrols, anticanker forces retreat to bases in Plantation, Homestead, and (pictured) Miami-Dade

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, west of Miami International Airport, 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 14-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 appropriated only a million dollars for the effort. The following year they approved another three million.

That was not enough to finance the widespread inspections and removals 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 then 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 18 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 USDA Forest Service uses to battle catastrophic wildfires. Under the 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 $10 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 Canker Anchor, "to accomplish the mission of removing approximately 750,000 to a million citrus trees over the next year."

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