CHATHAM CO., GA (WTOC) - Mention the Zika virus and you can get a lot of people to pay attention. However, mosquito control here in Chatham County isn't giving the virus much hope of spreading here, saying our air-conditioned culture just won't support a mass outbreak.
That does not, however, mean we are in control of the insects that spread it. In fact, the county's assessment of where the mosquito population here is headed could make you never want to leave the house.
Three things will make or break that dire prediction: dredging, the Corps of Engineers and money. Here's how they're related.
First, what does dredging along the Savannah River have to do with mosquitos? Millions of cubic tons of sediment are already being taken from the riverbed. Thousands of acres of high marshland has been set aside across the river as a place to dump it.
The county is convinced that if that new sediment is not handled properly, we will be dealing with a mosquito problem unlike any in the in the county's 240-year history.
"If all 5,600 acres was breeding at one time," admits Mosquito Control Director Jeffery Heusel, "we'd have the potential for 30 billion salt marsh mosquitos."
Heusel was offering up a very frightening assessment to Congressman Buddy Carter this week. The hope is Carter, along with Senators Isakson and Perdue will convince Congress to respond to the county's request for several hundred thousand dollars to combat the threat.
The congressman came to get a lesson on Zika control. Not a real concern for Mosquito Control right now. Not when the Corps of Engineer's dredging project is contributing to an epic mosquito breeding ground in our own backyard.
So, here's the county's concern. If all the dredging material being brought here just across the Savannah River is allowed to dry on its own, it will create millions of tiny cracks that will fill with water allowing for a huge breeding ground for billions of mosquitos. And so, in the county's funding request to the Corps of Engineers they are telling them that if that's allowed to happen there will be so many mosquitos that Savannah and Chatham County will be unusable by human beings for 10 months out of every year. And that mosquito-borne illnesses will spread like wildfire.
That containment site breeds salt marsh mosquitos. Those are the kind that fly and bite all day and all night. And they travel an average of 10 miles to feed. That range includes just about every square inch of Chatham County.
The Corps of Engineers has been willing to pay up to $300,000 a year to control mosquitos in the county. That's been like giving a kid a quarter for a coke.
"Our expenses are running anywhere from a half a million up to $850,000, $900,000 a year," says Chatham County Manager, Lee Smith. "So we are shy up to half a million dollars a year from the Corps of covering our expenses."
And Chatham County is now asking the Corps to give up to $500,000 more to help stop the bleeding.
"That dredge site is one of the largest mosquito breeding sites on the east coast," adds Smith.
And it is currently producing the same mosquitos capable of spreading Eastern Equine Encephalitis which is already a problem in Chatham County.
"And triple E is deadly not only to large breed animals but to humans," says Smith, "particularly young or older folks."
Smith is confident the feds will find the money. What choice does he have? What choice do we have? There is no question, the alternative bites.
Smith calls that alternative, unbearable.
Smith also calls Savannah the perfect breeding ground for mosquito and mosquito-borne diseases. Think about it, the port brings in ships from every corner of the planet. Our historic district brings in visitors from every continent. And then there're the dredging containment fields across the river.
If the county gets the extra money it would be used to trench the site to empty standing water, build ponds and stock them with mosquito-eating fish, and or course, regular spraying of the site.