COLUMBIA, S.C. – After rainfall and floods of almost biblical proportions, South Carolina is seeing a plague of mosquitoes. Now, lawmakers from both parties agree exterminating them must be a priority — even if it means spending actual money.
There's bipartisan support for killing the tiny bloodsuckers that have been tormenting residents following last month's historic rainfall that flooded several areas of the state. Lawmakers said Thursday they want the federal government to pay for the anti-mosquito campaign, but if it doesn't, the state should consider picking up the tab.
The total price tag for all counties that are part of the federal emergency declaration is estimated at $39 million, according to South Carolina's Emergency Management Division. But lawmakers said rural areas can't afford the hefty $1.5 million per-county estimate for aerial spraying. Yet they're concerned about possible health risks for people, pets and livestock.
Richland County, also home to the state capital Columbia, is paying to spray rural parts of the hard-hit county this week, where the "landing rate" has reached more than 60 per minute. That's far more than the four or five landings normal for this time of year, vector control director Tammy Brewer told The State newspaper.
Several days of record-setting downpours in early October claimed 19 storm-related deaths in the Carolinas, flooded hundreds of homes and businesses, and temporarily shut down hundreds of flooded roads and washed-out bridges. The storm also temporarily left stretches of several interstates impassable in South Carolina.
Lawmakers said it's not fair to leave residents of counties with smaller tax bases to suffer.
"I see this as a statewide problem, not a county problem. Rural counties can't do this," said state Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, adding that mosquitoes are the No. 1 complaint he's getting now from constituents. If the federal government doesn't pay, "the state of South Carolina will have to bear this as an expense."
State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, Democrat from Orangeburg, said it should be an issue all lawmakers can support, as mosquitoes don't care about anyone's political party or race.
"We're all getting bit," she said, speaking at a meeting of the state's house budget-writing committee Thursday.
She suggested asking the state's congressional delegation to push for federal reimbursement. She said it could affect the state's No. 1 industry of tourism "if the word gets out we've got West Nile mosquitoes flying around here."
Tony Melton, a Clemson extension service agent who's been helping farmers for 35 years, said the mosquito problem is the worst he's ever seen.
"People are staying inside; that's the bottom line," said Melton, who's based out of Florence. "You can't get out of a tractor in the field."
He said mosquitoes were "eating me alive" a couple weeks ago as he rode a cab-less tractor in a sweet potato field.
He predicts the problem will only worsen with time as the mosquitoes are "just breeding tremendously."
"All that water is standing in spots and fields where there's no drainage for a long time," he noted.
It appears the federal government will not cover the cost of killing mosquitoes, said Kim Stenson, director of the state's Emergency Management Division. But he said he will keep bringing the issue before FEMA.
"It has to present a fairly significant health hazard. The evidence isn't there right now," he said.
There have been no cases of West Nile Virus since the flooding, according to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Smith said the state shouldn't wait until cases are detected.
"It's incumbent on us in the General Assembly and everyone to mitigate this before it becomes too late. One person being affected is one too many," he said. "I've never seen mosquitoes this large. They're multiplying, and we're just getting started on the breeding and what's to come."