Houston flood victims warned of fire ants

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Thursday, 14 June 2001 11:22 (ET)

Houston flood victims warned of fire ants

HOUSTON, June 14 (UPI) -- Houston flood victims were warned Thursday to watch out for fire ants forced from their underground homes by high water and looking for temporarily cover in devastated homes and the piles of debris scattered across the city.

The warning from the Harris County fire ant specialist came the day after Mayor Lee Brown said the torrential rains produced by Tropical Storm Allison last week caused $2 billion in damage, making it the most destructive storm in the history of the city that has survived hurricanes.

Paul Nester, a fire ant expert at the Harris County Agricultural Extension Service, said there have already been reports of masses of fire ants floating down flooded bayous and streams until they can find somewhere to take temporary cover.

"One woman reported a floating mass of fire ants had hit her house. The whole side of her house was covered with them," he said. "One man clinging to the bridge was hit by a mass of floating fire ants but he was quickly rescued so he escaped serious injury."

Fire ants swarm and sting with a venom that is painful to most people and dangerous for persons who have an allergic reaction. If the victim experiences shortness of breath, swelling in the sting area, and nausea, they are urged to see a doctor immediately.

Water forces the ants to the surface where they gather in a "biological ball" that uses the surface tension of the water to allow them to float like a leaf on the water. "They can be seen as a ball, a stream or a ribbon of ants," he said. "As soon as they hit a high place, like a building, a tree, or the ground, they will explode out on it to organize again."

Nester said the usual treatments for fire ants are out of the question now because of high water and soaked ground in the Houston area, but he warned people cleaning up debris to look for the ants, wear protective clothing, and uses insecticides on suspect piles of debris.

Meanwhile, the cleanup continues across the nation's fourth largest city and crews continue to pump water from some downtown office buildings. "This is clearly the most expensive, the most devastating disaster we've ever had," Brown said.

At least 21 people were killed in the flooding, most of them last weekend when the heaviest of the rains produced by Allison struck the city. Some locations in the city received up to 3 feet of rain during five days of torrential rains.

At least 24,000 homes and 526 commercial buildings received damage from the flooding, several of them downtown skyscrapers. Several downtown theaters were also heavily damaged and scores of irreplaceable instruments and a library of musical scores destroyed.

Memorial Hermann Hospital had to evacuate all its 540 patients during the weekend when the high water knocked out its back-up generators. There were four deaths during the power outage at the hospital and two after the evacuation at other hospitals.

Hospital officials said all six patients were in critical to serious condition before the outrage and the emergency did not directly contribute to their deaths. On a normal weekend, they said, nine patients on average will die at the hospital, which is a high-priority trauma center.

Houston has weathered a number of deadly and destructive tropical storms, floods and hurricanes because it sits only about 50 miles from the Gulf coast. Alicia hit the coast in 1983, killing 21 people and causing a $3.5 billion toll in the region. Carla in 1961 was even more deadly, taking 34 lives in Texas and causing $1.8 billion damage in the Houston area.

Copyright 2001 by United Press International. All rights reserved.

-- Swissrose (cellier3@mindspring.com), June 14, 2001

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