Canker Sore

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

Utley's chief spokesman, Richard Miranda, who spent most of the '90s serving with U.S. Army special operations forces, says only "an act of God" will prevent completion of the task. "We are in a state of emergency down here," he says.

And so, on a sweltering morning in May, division supervisor Andres Piñero, age 23, drives a state-owned white pickup truck from Plantation headquarters to his staging area: a Winn-Dixie supermarket parking lot in Hialeah. Leaders of his eight anticanker inspection units arrive in white vans. They all wear white polo shirts, the citrus canker army uniform. After a 15-minute session to identify their areas of deployment, they are back in their vehicles, fanning out across a residential section of northwest Hialeah. Over the past two weeks, they have located dozens of citrus trees and spray-painted Xs on them (yellow for exposed and red for infected); all will have to be cut down. Their only weapon: a state law that allows them to enter yards without permission and makes impeding their work a misdemeanor. Their only olive branch: a $100 voucher that residents who lose trees can use at Wal-Mart.

By midmorning Miladis Marichal and her 13 inspectors are in the vicinity of West 70th Street and 31st Avenue. Joshua Delirus, a 24-year-old former supermarket stockman, is paired with Isis Travieso, a 32-year-old ex­medical clerk. Both have been on the frontlines for six months. Already this morning they have documented two instances of what is known in official nomenclature as owner refusal. Complying with a time-consuming protocol, they notified their supervisor, Marichal, who contacted Piñero, who called Miami-Dade police. After the cops arrived, the residents quickly acquiesced.

Not heat nor humidity nor scream nor dog keeps inspector Delirus from accomplishing his canker course
Steve Satterwhite
Not heat nor humidity nor scream nor dog keeps inspector Delirus from accomplishing his canker course
State workers oversee private-sector butchers who can't wait to turn your trees into mulch
Steve Satterwhite
State workers oversee private-sector butchers who can't wait to turn your trees into mulch

Some citizens pretend they are not home, while others offer far-fetched excuses to keep the inspectors away. "Sometimes people say, "I can't let you in because I'm not the owner,' but they are the owner," Travieso reports. "Or they'll say they can't open the gate because they lost the key." One resident tried to thwart an inspection by insisting it would disturb her dog, which was recovering from surgery.

Other people don't mind losing their trees. Down the street the inspectors find an orange tree in Enrique Gonzalez's back yard. Gonzalez is familiar with the situation; inspectors first came about a year ago. A copyeditor at a Christian publishing house, he's prepared to sacrifice his foliage for the greater good but hopes he'll be compensated. "If they pay me, it's all the same to me," he says.

Delirus and Travieso trudge up the walkway of a small house on West 70th Terrace. Delirus has his cell phone clipped to a cloth hoop on his baggy blue jeans. Travieso sports off-white slacks and running shoes. "Buenos días, Departamento de Agricultura," she sings out languidly in the 95-degree heat. "Good morning, Florida Department of Agriculture." No one responds to several knocks on the door. Delirus walks over to a gate in a chainlink fence. It is locked. He whistles to make sure a dog isn't waiting in the back yard. None barks, so he nimbly jumps over the barrier. He quickly returns and reports the property has no citrus tree.

After lunch at a nearby McDonald's, Marichal's team is back on the streets for a tense afternoon. A series of knocks and shouts at a house on NW 30th Avenue goes unanswered, so Delirus shoves aside a bag of cement that is holding a wooden gate shut and follows Travieso to a section of yard running along one side of the home. Suddenly a window slides open.

"What are you doing!" screams an irate woman in Spanish. "Who said you could come in here?" Travieso tries to explain, but the tirade continues. "You don't have the right to enter a property. You have to inform someone first."

"Yes, ma'am, that's why we knocked several times," Travieso responds calmly.

"I was in the bathroom! I didn't hear anything!"

Travieso apologizes and offers her a form that outlines how to file a complaint.

"I don't want any form," the woman replies and slams the window shut. Meanwhile Delirus has discovered a citrus seedling along the wood plank fence. He gives it a blast of yellow spray paint.

Nearby an elderly woman tells two other inspectors they cannot walk into her back yard. The inspectors call Marichal, and soon two cops show up. They persuade the cantankerous senior to yield.

Homeowner obstinacy is not the only problem multiplied by the ever-expanding area of infection. So are the chances that inspectors will not spot signs of infection. "If symptoms occur in the tops of trees, it's easy to miss them," notes Lavern Timmer of the CREC. "It's kind of a needle-in-a-haystack thing." It is also difficult to catch low levels of disease, he adds. "The [problem] is trying to detect it with so many trees scattered around and so many residences and citrus groves affected," he continues. "This year they got a lot more funding, so they've got a lot more people than they've had in the past. If they could have done what they are doing now several years ago, this thing never would have gotten to the point it's gotten to. It's just hard to have enough people."Another problem is that U.S. Department of Agriculture enforcement officer Maria Amaya and her comrades in the agency's plant protection and quarantine division are having trouble getting through to landscaping companies and governments. As of mid-June authorities in Hialeah, the City of Miami, Miami-Dade County, and others have yet to sign an agreement to cooperate with federal and state agriculture officers and follow quarantine rules. The quarantine is aimed at prohibiting people from taking citrus trees or parts of them, including fruit, out of the area. Landscapers, gardeners, and anyone else who comes in contact with the trees are supposed to disinfect themselves and their equipment afterward. But many remain ignorant or are pretending the rules don't exist in order to save money. One of Miami's biggest landscaping companies is flagrantly violating the quarantine, Amaya says, but she declines to identify the firm. She recalls that authorities escorted one of the company's crews out of a Broward municipality for refusing to comply with the regulations. Violators are subject to a wide range of fines. She declined to comment further.

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