Hurricane Harvey did terrible damage to the city of Houston, Texas. The storm drowned the entire state and neighboring Louisiana in some 27 trillion gallons of water. As a result, thousands of Houston residents had no choice but to leave. But they would soon face a new danger – and one that they never saw coming.
As the hurricane landed, many oil rigs and refineries had to be shut down. Indeed, one in ten rigs was evacuated across the entire Gulf region. Estimates of the hurricane’s total cost approached $200 billion.
However, it wasn’t the rigs that posed the greatest threat to the evacuating residents of Houston. In fact, as they were overcome by the floodwaters, locations like the Arkema Group chemical plant presented a potentially far greater danger.
Workers at the chemical plant had attempted to prepare for the storm’s catastrophic impact, but they fell short. With its electricity supply disrupted, the plant’s cooling systems failed. Eventually a fire broke out and there were two explosions which proceeded to disperse toxic smoke.
Indeed, all manner of chemicals would inevitably be swept up in the floodwaters. Professor Barbara Sattler, of the University of San Francisco, told Time, “Houston has over 500 industrial sites and in every home we’ve got some mix of solvents, pesticides, oil. Those are all part of this huge contamination pond that is Houston.”
Bruce Bodson, lead scientist of the clean water advocacy group Bayou City Waterkeeper, told Time, “Virtually all the waterways in Houston are impaired with bacteria, and that’s on a good day. Instead of staying politely in the stream channels, these impaired waters are now in everybody’s house and backyard.”
However, despite the enormous challenge that this represents to locals, it isn’t the most unusual threat that they are facing. Indeed, as a result of the incredible floodwaters, a small nuisance has grown into a truly terrifying prospect.
In fact, Houston’s residents are beset by fire ants. And these fire ants have begun working together to form floating rafts. Using their sticky feet, the ants are able to tightly pack themselves together to form a watertight vessel, taking advantage of surface tension in order to float. And for those who don’t know, fire ants are able to deliver a nasty bite, thanks to the venom that they produce.
What’s more, the ants can hold together as a floating island for a long time. Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2011 in fact showed that a group of fire ants can survive floating on water for weeks at a time.
AgriLife Extension Service pest specialist Paul Nester had advice for anyone coming across fire ants. He wrote, “Avoid contact with floating mats of fire ants. If you are in a row boat, do not touch the ants with the oars since they can climb aboard via [them].” A boat full of fire ants is obviously something to be avoided at all costs.
Nester also offered warnings for those working on buildings around floodwater. He wrote, “Occasionally, floating ant masses are encountered even indoors in flooded structures… Cuffed gloves, rain gear and rubber boots help prevent the ants from reaching the skin. If they do, they will bite and sting.”
A further problem in dealing with fire ants is that they won’t just bite – indeed, they’ll actually grip onto the skin. And trying to wash them off won’t help. Nester notes, “[It is essential to] remove them immediately by rubbing them off. If submerged, ants will cling to the skin and even a high-pressure water spray may not dislodge them.”
Although these ants might seem like a limited problem to those unfamiliar with them, they can actually be extremely unpleasant. Molly Keck, an entomologist at AgriLife Extension Service told The Verge, “When the first one stings, they emit a pheromone that causes a chain reaction that tells [all the other ants] to sting – so you’re going to experience quite a few stings.”
The first thing to remember for Texans is that avoidance is the best strategy. The fire ants are not aggressive when left to their own devices. It is when humans attempt to disperse them or disturb their nests that they become more aggressive.
However, that’s often more easily said than done. Paul Nester explained, “When picking up debris, pay attention to what is on, under or in it – especially if the debris has been sitting in one area for several days. Fire ants love to get under carpet strips, furniture and old wood to re-establish their colony.”
Houston isn’t the first place that this phenomena has been witnessed, however. Fire ants were similarly spotted forming islands in the wake of flooding in South Carolina in 2015. One Fox reporter saw what he at first believed was a patch of mud – only to then discover fire ants upon closer inspection.
In the same fashion, Alabama residents had to contend with fire ants earlier this year. Following flooding caused by Tropical Storm Cindy, locals were warned about the threats posed by ants both in the water and in locations that had been flooded.
The media also noted at the time that the fire ants had not always been found in the state. They are in fact an invasive species that was first released in the region about 75 years ago. The troublesome creatures actually originate in South America.
The fire ants will not be the only problem facing the residents of Houston, though. Following Hurricane Katrina, as many as ten percent of survivors suffered from PTSD. It can be expected that among those affected by Harvey, there will be similarly long-term effects.
More pressingly, Houston will have to deal with the cleanup of Superfund sites. These are designated zones containing dangerous amounts of toxic waste, now at risk of spreading due to the flood – and there are 20 sites in the vicinity of the city. In the meantime, local residents will have to begin the process of rescuing their homes – looking out for ferocious fire ants all the while.