Mosquito Squad Declares (Cautious) Victory After 8-Year Infestation

Members of the Mosquito Squad cross their fingers in front of their block.

By Joy Bergmann

Nevermore will flesh-munching mosquitoes haunt the nights of residents living on West 84th Street between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive (also known as Edgar Allan Poe Street). After eight years of misery, the mosquitoes appear to have been eradicated, say members of the Mosquito Squad who have fought the tiny beasts.

“It’s been a long journey, but one we want others to benefit from,” says Tom. “We’ve created a prototype for how the city should handle future infestations and have shown how residents can create change.” [Squad members asked WSR to only use their first names.]

In December 2009, neighbors started sharing their tales of sleepless, gnawed nights. Mosquitoes were biting them particularly during the winter months, and the welts they’d leave were different from the kinds they normally got. Their early investigations revealed that these were no ordinary bugs. The mosquitoes of 84th street were a particularly hearty species called Culex pipiens molestus, known for terrorizing Londoners during the Blitz in World War II. West Side Rag first wrote about them in 2011.

Using a shared timeline document, volunteers compiled observations and action steps. Though initially unschooled in how NYC infrastructure actually gets monitored and repaired, the Mosquito Squad soon began a doctoral program in navigating unfamiliar science and tangled bureaucracy.

The driving question for years was: Where is water pooling underground to host these hearty wintertime invaders and how do we drain that habitat out of existence?

Dozens of expert and amateur sleuths weighed in. A mosquito geneticist from Rutgers. An entomologist from the American Museum of Natural History. A vector specialist from the Department of Mental Health and Hygiene. Con Ed sinkhole experts. Sewer strategists from the Department of Environmental Protection [DEP]. Department of Transportation sidewalk inspectors. A civil engineering professor from Purdue. A mosquito behaviorist from the University of Maryland. And the block’s 403 families, who signed petitions, made 311 calls and answered regular online surveys from the Mosquito Squad regarding mosquito sightings. Some politicians got involved: the squad was particularly grateful to assembly member Linda Rosenthal, who assisted with inter-agency coordination and follow up.

The group’s now-18-page timeline tracked every development. Holes were checked. Larvicide got dropped. Traps went into manholes. Water mains broke. Gas leaks hissed. Dubious fame arrived via Wikipedia noting the block as a site of London Underground mosquito “invasion.” Every winter, residents taped vents, slept under nets and still awoke bitten.

But some time in the past two years – Squad-ers aren’t sure how or when – the DEP decided what the block needed was a re-lining of its sewer pipes using a technique called CIPP (cured in place pipe). CIPP is essentially like slipping a plastic sleeve into the existing pipe and then using either heat or light to transform raw chemicals into a hard plastic lining, sealing any leaks while eliminating the need to dig out damaged pipe.

In early March 2018, Tom was surprised and “ecstatic” to find a flyer taped to his brownstone’s door announcing the imminent sewer repairs. But when crews began working on March 6th, he became alarmed by an intense chemical odor akin to burning plastic penetrating his home. The flyer had warned of this, stating, “These odors, though unpleasant, are not dangerous or toxic.”  Tom wasn’t so sure.

A worker relines the sewer pipes in March 2018. Photo via Mosquito Squad.

A subsequent Google search about CIPP fumes yielded some unsettling safety concerns and new research. Like characters from a “Catch-22” bonus scene, the Squad reached back out to city officials, alerting them – and their neighbors – to this possible new hazard. “We were reluctant to fight the City on another topic that was designed to fix our problem,” Tom says. “But they listened and are looking at revisiting procedures to make sure contractors are acting in accord with the latest information.” [The DEP did not respond to WSR’s inquiries.]

In any case, that booster shot of anxiety may have been worth it. Since the sewer repair work, the Squad says there has been only one reported mosquito.

But is a victory dance premature?

Tom doesn’t think so. “Even if some residents get an occasional visitor now or next winter, we can consider the block’s infestation solved.” He’s so optimistic, he’s planned an eradication celebration block party for December.

Other Squad-ers remain more cautious in their prognostications. The nets over beds might get taken down, but for now, the net hooks are staying in the ceiling.

They are unanimous, however, in their commitment to taking action to improve community life and implore other UWS-ers to do the same.

“Don’t just complain about something. Take responsibility in your own hands,” says Pauline. “Talk to each other. Be accountable to each other.”

“If you want something done, you have to make the city aware and stay on the case,” adds Dan. “The more face-to-face meetings you have, the better. It’s easy to ignore someone over email or 311. Put your problem on the top of their list.”

NEWS | 9 comments | permalink
    1. Nora B says:

      Thank you to the intrepid mosquito squad for bringing this problem to the city officials who actually cared (Linda Rosenthal!!!), and for following through on the years of work needed to eradicate this awful pest. You have made my nights much calmer and restful since I’m not constantly on the alert for buzzing invaders. Great work!

      • Lin says:

        It must have been a nightmare to have lived through this. I cannot imagine. I am happy for you and all.

    2. Carlos says:

      Many thanks to the mosquito squad for all of your hard work. We were not impacted nearly as much as others who live on the block, but we are still very grateful. However, I will not consider this case closed until we make it through peak summer mosquito season without further problems.

      • Cato says:

        Different mosquitoes. You’re going to get “regular” mosquitoes during the summer — count on it.

        These efforts eliminated (we hope) the underground, all-weather nasties, not the summer type.

    3. Eln says:

      BRAVO and Congratulations! Job well done!

    4. AC says:

      I don’t live on the block, but as a nearby neighbor, I was very familiar with their ordeal. Keeping my fingers crossed that they have been eradicated!

      ps: on a side note, and adding a bit of levity to the story – in the 1970’s, into the early/mid 1980’s, there use to be street ‘crew’ (gang) that called West 84 Street home (primarily between Amsterdam & Columbus). The name of this crew? The Mosquitos. True Story!

    5. JR says:

      Many thanks to the squad for their diligence. We live on the east side of West End at 84th and have suffered yearly infestations way into winter, and countless bites along with you all on the block. Fingers crossed that the battle is over.