PALM BEACH COUNTY - A late-starting mosquito season has quickly developed into one of the worst in modern memory, forcing residents of many neighborhoods to run from their homes to their cars through swarms of blood-sucking insects.
Broward County Mosquito Control reports 500 to more than 700 complaints a day, as tiny, aggressive salt marsh mosquitoes blow in from the Everglades. Palm Beach County, farther from the salt marsh bugs' breeding grounds, is reporting about 100 calls a day, the worst in the past few years.
"They're very small, they're very fierce biters," and unlike most other types, bite around the clock, said Joe Marhefka, Broward County's mosquito-control director. "It's creating a really big problem."
The long drought delayed the breeding season, but since the rains began in June, they have been reproducing in stupendous numbers.
"People are calling like crazy," said Marhefka. "They can't get to their cars, their kids are getting bitten up."
When Tony Moonen arrived at West Broward High School in Pembroke Pines to pick up his daughter from band camp, he found the mosquitoes had attacked in force.
"She was covered with bug bites all over her legs," he said. "They had been out in the field practicing, and a lot of kids in the band got bit. I was out there, and I got bit pretty bad. I've got sores all over my legs from scratching."
Maria Hernandez, of Miramar, feels trapped in her house.
"We're getting eaten alive," she said. "I have to run from my car to my house as if I'm running away from something. I can't go skating with my dog. I can't go outside at all."
Shelly Redovan, executive director of the Florida Mosquito Control Association, said heavy concentrations of mosquitoes are being reported statewide.
"It's been a rough season for pretty much everybody," she said. "Across the state people are reporting more numbers than they usually do."
A possible cause is the drought, she said. Many mosquito species lay eggs on dry land that would eventually become wet, and with the lack of rainfall over the past few months, there's been a lot more dry land than in typical years. When the rains came, raising the water levels of lakes, ponds, marshes and canals, vast numbers of mosquitoes started to hatch.
"There was more dry land for laying eggs, and when the rain came you'd have these massive explosions of mosquitoes," she said. "Most places are having a difficult mosquito season so far."
In Palm Beach County, the western neighborhoods near the insects' marshy breeding grounds are particularly infested, said Ed Bradford, the county's mosquito control director.
Initially, northern Palm Beach County from the ocean to Lake Okeechobee had the worst of it, although more complaints are now coming in from southern Palm Beach County, he said.
He said it was vital for people to eliminate the standing water in which they breed.
"Every day you have rainfall, you get more larvae hatching out," he said. "Unfortunately we have been getting multiple hatches. Each mosquito can lay 200 to 300 eggs. And it just takes a few mosquitoes and you could have 1000 mosquitoes hatching out and biting you."
Both counties dispatch trucks for anti-mosquito spraying in hard-hit neighborhoods. Palm Beach County contracts for a helicopter out of Lantana to spray more spread-out western communities. Broward County uses a twin-engine plane.
Although mosquitoes transmit diseases such as dengue fever and West Nile virus, the species that carry these diseases have not yet begun breeding in great numbers. They are expected to peak from September through November.
The salt marsh mosquitoes making life miserable in South Florida breed in areas beyond the reach of these vehicles, although there are separate populations along the coast.
But Broward County has responded aggressively to complaints — which peaked at 738 on Tuesday, compared to the typical season's 200 or 300 a day — and the phones seemed quieter Wednesday, Marhefka said.
In addition to eliminating standing water around their homes, authorities advise people to wear clothing that protects arms and legs, avoid the outdoors at dawn and dusk and use repellent that contains DEET.