Family loses all to ticks at Kadena
August 3, 2003
KADENA AIR BASE — An infestation of ticks in base housing here has officials re-examining the inspection process prior to assigning units to new families.
But that’s of little consolation to Sharon Girard, who said this is her “summer of hell.”
Girard, 44, says the failure of base housing inspectors to detect ticks in a house they assigned her in June, has cost her family thousands of dollars.
“It’s horrendous,” she said. “Almost everything we own has been ruined.”
The nightmare began back in June, when Marine Lt. Col. Charles E. Girard, the Food Services officer for Marine bases on Okinawa, finally got what he wanted: a house closer to his office on Camp Kinser. For the past seven years the family has been living on Camp Courtney. The move put him 30-45 minutes closer to work.
His wife said they moved into their new home June 9. Within days they realized they had a problem.
“I was sitting on a stool in the kitchen while I was putting food away, and I saw a tick on my leg,” Sharon Girard said. “The next day we found a couple more. On the 11th my husband found six ticks in our bathroom in the time between he showered and shaved.
“They were coming out of the woodwork,” she said.
Girard collected about a dozen ticks and called the entomology section of the 718th Civil Engineering Squadron. She handed them in a plastic bag to an inspector who arrived the same day.
The inspector confirmed the infestation and the house and yard were sprayed immediately.
The ticks survived.
“There were still ticks everywhere,” Girard said. “We were set to go back to the States on leave to take our oldest daughter to Annapolis for her plebe summer.”
“All we could take was the clothes on our backs,” she said. “Everything else was infested. We had to buy everything for ourselves and for my daughter, who was starting her first year at the Naval Academy. That alone put us out about $4,000.”
They had their two dogs dipped and shaved and left them with friends. The house was sprayed again and the Girards left.
They returned July 6.
“We were assured there was no way anything could still be alive,” Girard said. “We went into the house to clean up and get ready to move everything, and there were still all these ticks. It was worse than before.”
The Girards were given a new house around the corner, but had to leave all of their belongings behind because of the infestation. The Air Force arranged to have the house professionally fumigated.
Girard said the family was prepared to lose some personal effects, but weren’t prepared for what happened next.
After the house’s four-day fumigation treatment they were allowed inside to check on their belongings.
“It’s a disaster,” Girard said. “The chemicals corroded anything that was metal — everything from my husband’s medals and daughter’s ROTC trophies to anything electrical, like computers and televisions and other appliances, is destroyed.”
As of Thursday, she estimates the family’s loss at more than $40,000.
“And we haven’t inventoried everything yet,” she said.
What really irks her, though, is that she believes housing officials could have prevented the problem. “The house was treated for ticks a year ago,” she said. “It should’ve been red-flagged. Entomology should have been out there and inspecting it the day after they moved.”
Mike Reese, assistant chief of housing for the 718th Civil Engineering Squadron, said procedures in place prior to the tick fiasco provided no warning.
“A year ago last July, the unit was treated for a pest control problem that included ticks,” he said. “However, the former occupants never identified a further problem.
“We considered the problem taken care of since there were no further indications of a problem from the occupants,” he said.
Reese said everything appeared normal during the transfer of the house at 1832 Stearley Heights from its former occupants. “In a pre-termination briefing we always ask ‘do you have any maintenance or pest control problem that we need to rectify?’ And their answer was ‘no.’”
The same question was asked during the final inspection of the house after the occupant’s belongings were removed, Reese said. “Again we asked the standard questions,” he said. The occupants said there was no change.
During the final inspection a housing official walks through the house with the occupant. “There was no indication of a pest control problem — no evidence of tick infestation,” Reese said.
The house was then professionally cleaned and painted. Reese said it took three days to paint the house and no one noticed any ticks.
“The first time we heard of any problem was four days after the Girard family moved in,” Reese said. “We were very, very pro-active to that call.”
Tech. Sgt. James Kirk, a pest control specialist with the 18th CES, had never seen so many ticks. “This was a very serious problem, no doubt of that,” Kirk said. “I’ve been doing this for 18 years and this is the worst I’ve seen.”
He said it was difficult to say how the problem had evolved. “One factor we have to remember is the nature of this tick,” he said. “The average tick lays 150 eggs on average, which take two to five weeks to hatch.”
Just spotting ticks is troublesome, Kirk added. “They are very minute,” he said. “You won’t see them if they’re in the carpet. On linoleum they look like specks of dirt.”
The ticks in the building had gone dormant, Kirk said. “And they were in the ceiling — they’d gone into hiding. “What could have happened is that we could have had an occupant that released bug bombs in there prior to termination and believed the problem was solved,” he said. “There would have been no visible ticks on the ground, but there could have been a mass migration by the ticks to higher ground — the ceiling.”
Kirk said the insects, called brown dog ticks, are difficult to eliminate. “Ticks are the hardest pests to control. It can take up to two months to get them under control.”
Lt. Col. Girard said the infestation could have been prevented if dog owners would take better care of their pets, not allow them to run loose and always use anti-flea and tick pills, collars and skin treatments. The Girards have two dogs of their own.
“Pet owners must be made aware of the potential risk and resulting loss that could occur,” said the 27-year Marine veteran. “People need to be responsible pet owners.”
Housing officials don’t believe the Girards brought the ticks with them when they moved into the house. “There’s no indication they brought the problem with them,” Reese said. “They relocated from one government house to another, and there’s no indication of a problem at their last quarters.”
Reese was insistent that he did everything possible for the Girards throughout their tick trauma.
“From the time that we were notified to this very minute we have been very pro-active in supporting the Girards every step of the way,” he said. He promised to be supportive of the Girards’ damage claim.
The situation made his command, which is in charge of all military family housing units on Okinawa, change the inspection process.
“From now on, when we know there have been animals in the quarters, we will make sure we will inspect and treat the quarters before allowing a new tenant to move in,” he said. “Entomology will inspect every home that had pets, whether or not the tenants reported any problems.
“This was not a part of our process before,” he said. “Now it is.”
So far, the ticks have not migrated to nearby houses. “That’s very positive,” Reese said. “Even though this is a misfortune, it’s confined within this unit. We don’t want a repeat of this. No matter how rare it was.
“We will not re-assign that house until we have full assurance that we have no pest problem,” he added.
Sharon Girard hopes that what has happened to her family doesn’t happen to others. “We’ve basically lost everything,” she said. “We’re starting over. Most anything metal is melted or corroded over, clothing destroyed, everything electrical is fried.”
A check with the company that makes the chemical used for the final fumigation, Phostoxin, or aluminum phosphide, confirmed her worst fears.
“Likely much or all of the electrical systems will have to be replaced,” a technical director for Degesch America, of Virginia, wrote in response to the Girards’ query. “Switches, thermostats, television sets, radios and other electrical items will be destroyed.”
Using the chemical in a home was not recommended, wrote Donald Shaheen, technical director for Degesch.
“Homes and other structures containing phosphine-sensitive equipment must not be treated with phosphine,” he wrote. “Your fumigator, although he apparently did a good job of sealing your house and providing a sufficient dosage to kill the pests, is incompetent.”