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Phone: 409-938-2211
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Island sees more rats after Hurricane Ike

By Laura Elder

Published October 8, 2009

GALVESTON — Some of the many unpleasant consequences of Hurricane Ike may come with big teeth, twitchy noses and long tails.

Rat sightings are always common in port cities. But some island officials and employers said storm surge a year ago likely flushed rodents from their usual nesting places, while killing off snakes and other predator animals. That’s adding up either to more rats or rats in new places.

When Ike struck, the city suspended routine rodent control efforts on rock groins along the seawall. Those craggy surfaces are common nesting places for rats.

Galveston’s Park Board of Trustees, which maintains beaches and oversees tourism, won’t resume the program until crews complete repairs to the rock groins, Lou Muller, executive director, said.

Rat Tales

Most of the rat stories are anecdotal. Officials with the Galveston County Health District, which regulates restaurants, and exterminators interviewed for this story are not reporting spikes in the island’s rat population.

Muller said he hasn’t heard any complaints from tourists about rats since the storm.

But the rat stories are making the rounds.

“It may or may not be accurate, but there seems to be an increase of the number of rats since the storm,” Police Chief Charles Wiley said.

“Some have attributed it to the rise of water washing them all up on the island from the rocks, others say it’s the dilapidated housing and conditions of houses that have not been repaired.”

But in some places, there’s hard evidence of a rodent problem.

The post-Ike infestation is so severe on the fourth floor of the Rebecca Sealy Hospital at the University of Texas Medical Branch, officials have asked employees not to eat or leave food in certain areas.

Medical branch officials emphasize the rodent problem appears to be isolated to the fourth floor of Rebecca Sealy, where there are no patients. About 125 people are working in the Rebecca Sealy building, which before the storm also housed a psychiatric hospital. The psychiatric hospital has not reopened. On the fourth floor, about 80 employees work in research administrative services, managing grants.

Infestation isn’t a problem at John Sealy Hospital, where patients are being treated, officials said.

Medical branch officials said they learned of the problem at Rebecca Sealy more than a month ago and have employed all sorts of rodent control measures, including poison, traps and even high-frequency sound waves to repel the unwanted guests.

“We have aggressive pest control in all of our buildings,” Rick McFee, assistant vice president for operations and support services, said.

McFee said storm surge, which reached as high as 12 feet in some areas of the island, swept away animals, including snakes that prey on rats.

Also, about 1 million square feet of buildings at the medical branch campus were inundated with surge, including the first floor of the Rebecca Sealy building.

Rebecca Sealy was closed and sealed off longer than other campus buildings, McFee said.

It’s likely other areas of the island are dealing with infestation, McFee said.

Medical branch officials said they’re getting a grip on the rodent problem at Rebecca Sealy. They also understand the concern by some employees who spot rats in their offices, spokeswoman Chris Comer said.

Safety is a priority and the medical branch, despite its best efforts, regrets it has not been able to eradicate the rodents sooner, Comer said.

‘Fearful And Disorganized’

Many rats and mice drown during floods, and survivors are displaced, wandering to new areas in search of shelter and food, according to the Pan American Health Organization.

“Fearful and disorganized, it takes time for them to regroup and reorganize their social behavior, become familiar with their new environment, find safe havens, locate food and water and memorize their movements,” according to reports by the organization.

Colony building and reproduction only begin when the new ecosystem has stabilized, meaning a rodent population can take six to 10 months to recover, the group said.

As houses sat empty, garbage sat uncollected and weeds grew unmolested after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, New Orleans saw a surge in all sorts of animals, including wildlife that typically shuns urban places, according to reports.

Rats are attracted to the rock groins because anglers or tourists drop bait or food in crevices, Muller said. All the construction along the seawall, where crews are using heavy equipment and jack hammers to pulverize rocks and repair the groins, likely has sent rodents in search of new places to nest, Muller said.

Muller said he wasn’t sure when the repairs would be complete and the rodent control program would resume.


Kurt Koopmann

Public Information Officer

Galveston County Health District

(409) 938-2211 or (409) 392-0007