Foreclosures Breeding a Public Health Problem

House Guest
House Guest | Photo: wild_turkey5300 | Flickr: Creative Commons License

The idea of home in mid-2012 claims and repels. Home, by the mere fact you had one, once flowed with magical prosperity. Now home is "underwater" and acting up like the Creature from the Black Lagoon, swamping those who had ventured too far into subprime and re-fi, the ones who had it all figured out.

Bank-owned black lagoons are on every block. They're in the golden foothills and on the tract house flats and in the "high desert" valleys most of all. Adventurers in notional ownership have gone away, cutting their losses and taking what they can, even cabinets and toilets, even the kitchen sink and the patio cover, even light switches and the garbage disposal. But they can't take the pool out of the backyard. When they've left with what they can take, the house falls silent and dark, stripped down to just a roof over nobody's head. Powerless, the pool dies.

June is a cruel month for a dead pool in Los Angeles, breeding mosquitoes out of the still water and the water's returning warmth. The mosquitoes wriggling up from their larval cases in June are presumed to carry West Nile virus (perhaps something worse after more climate change, perhaps dengue fever).

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Regional "vector control" agencies have found eight times as many cases of West Nile in dead birds and almost 20 times as many instances of infected mosquitoes so far in 2012 compared to 2011. West Nile has been found in at least 15 California counties. A mosquito was trapped in Encino earlier this month. It carried the West Nile virus. A crow found in Sierra Madre died of West Nile


West Nile is a preferentially a disease of birds, and crows (and blue jays and other corvids) are particularly susceptible.The first appearance of West Nile in Southern California was in 2002, and it was accompanied by the death of crows. As one observer put it, dead crows "fell from the sky."

A mosquito takes a blood meal from an infected bird, takes another from a dog or a horse or a cat or a human, and passes the virus through the mosquito's saliva. Dogs and cats are "dead end" recipients. Dogs and cats can't pass on the infection to another mosquito. Horses and humans are "dead ends" too. Horses have a surprisingly high mortality rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The death rare among humans is low compared to the rate of infection, which is assumed to be very high, given that most cases of West Nile produce almost no symptoms in humans.

In 2011, 158 human cases of West Nile were reported in California. Nine of the infected people died. State public health officials have begun to warn of a "200 percent increase" in West Nile cases in 2012, partly because of a mild winter and partly because there were fewer foreclosures in 2011, fewer dead pools behind bank-owned homes because banks were lying low after the scandle of "robo" signed documents. Foreclosures in 2012 are picking up.

Home is the neglected hero in the story of the life we tell ourselves into. Home is Penelope waiting for Odysseus. And when abandoned -- or taken away by the bank -- home changes to a threat. The water warms in the pool and turns bright green. The pH balance becomes hospitable. The water barely moves in the light wind of early summer. Fledging crows argue in the backyard tree.

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus and 1st and Spring blogs.

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