Shafts of sunlight filter into the darkened interiors of long-abandoned homes on Waco Street, in the heart of Houston’s Fifth Ward, an impoverished neighborhood of mostly black and Latino residents two miles from downtown. Ash-coated vines snake through front yards. And in nearby empty lots, islands of trash—old clothes, disemboweled couches, cardboard boxes—float in fields of weeds.
The uncollected trash of residents combines with the garbage that spills over from the rest of the city. As the environmental-justice pioneer Robert Bullard noted in a seminal 1983 report, Houston’s solid-waste facilities are disproportionately clustered in poor, predominantly black neighborhoods like the Fifth Ward (at the time, they were home to five of the city’s six landfills). The garbage sprawls alongside unlined ditches choked with debris. While the prosperous areas of the city enjoy storm sewers with curbs and gutters, in 88 percent of Houston’s poor, minority neighborhoods, unlined ditches are the sole form of drainage.
When it rains—about 50 inches fall on Houston every year—water collects in the ditches and in the nooks and crannies of garbage-strewn lots and empty homes, providing ample breeding sites for mosquitoes. Armies of insects hatch every few days, the females fanning out into the subtropical night in search of blood to nourish their incubating eggs. People slumbering in dilapidated houses with broken window screens make for easy pickings.
As the mosquitoes pierce the skin of their victims, whatever pathogenic microbes roost inside the insects’ bodies slip in, too. In 1964, those microbes included the St. Louis encephalitis virus, which causes deadly brain infections in older people. Roughly 10 percent of those infected died. In 2002, the mosquitoes brought the West Nile virus, sickening its victims at 20 times the rate that the SLE virus did. The following year, dengue fever arrived, which threatened children in particular with an Ebola-like hemorrhagic disease. Then, in 2014, the local mosquitoes were found to be harboring Chikungunya virus, which can cause debilitating joint pain for months.
Finally, in February 2016, with the mosquito-borne Zika virus looming over Houston and the rest of the Southern United States (and with the country in the midst of a fractious presidential election), the Obama administration asked Congress for $1.9 billion in emergency funds for a national effort to fight the mosquitoes that had long plagued places like the Fifth Ward. When the Republican-controlled Congress refused, public-health experts and others railed at their intransigence. “Republicans are going to look back on this time that they’ve had to act on the Zika virus and deeply regret it,” a White House spokesperson warned.