Many people across the country are opening their hearts and wallets to victims of Superstorm Sandy. They are opening their closets to them, too. But well-meaning clothing donations could add to tempest-tossed East Coasters' woes by bringing along some unwelcome guests: bedbugs.
The New York metropolitan area is still in the grip of a bloodsucker resurgence. Bedbugs are nondiscriminatory in their affections, cozying up anywhere from a public-housing project on Euclid Avenue in Brooklyn to a private hotel on Park Avenue in Manhattan. And once they get footholds on a mattress or bedspring, they can easily spread to clothing earmarked for hurricane victims, hiding away under the fold of a collar, the pocket of a blouse, even inside a buttonhole.
“They're excellent hitchhikers,” said University of Minnesota entomologist Stephen Kells.
A donor might not even be aware that his or her good-will bag of clothes is harboring a bedbug or two. Small infestations can spread from one bag of clothes to another, and grow ever larger. Bedbugs can also be brought in by volunteers or by disaster victims themselves. A big infestation can rednder homeless shelters temporarily unlivable -- in 2010, one center in Iowa City, Iowa, had to shell out big bucks to get rid of bedbugs by heating its rooms up to 140 degrees for 10 hours, as reported by the Daily Iowan.
Big national relief organizations such as the American Red Cross and United Way don't take clothing donations. There are multiple reasons for this policy, besides the potential for bedbugs: donated clothes take a lot of time to sort through and check for quality. Plus, the needs for every disaster and every local shelter can vary.
“You may have someone show up to a shelter with fifty coats that aren't needed,” Red Cross representative Melanie Pipkin said.
Then, the unneeded donated clothes have to be packed up and carted off. All that fuss and time is why the Red Cross and United Way encourage people to donate money, as opposed to goods.
Occasionally, some local chapters of big groups might ask for clothing donations tailored to the immediate needs of disaster victims. New York Cares organizes an annual coat drive for all Big Apple residents in need, but it asks donors to be sure to give a new or freshly laundered coat.
Kells said he and his colleagues have been in contact with chapters of United Way and other organizations -- though not ones involved in Superstorm Sandy relief -- advising them on the best way to nip bedbugs in the bud.
“Realistically, the best way is to make sure everything is run through a dryer, as long the temperature can get up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit,” Kells said.
Ad hoc organizations like Occupy Sandy have sprung up to fill gaps left by big organizations such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Red Cross in aiding storm victims. But it's unlikely that -- as these groups struggle to find drivers and gas to ferry much-needed supplies to the Rockaways in Queens and similarly devastated areas of Staten Island -- there's any time to run donated clothes through the wash or spot-check them for infestation.
“We take it on good faith that no one would donate bedbug-ridden items,” Occupy representative Ed Needham said in an email. “We've heard nothing of the sort so far.”
A lack of preventative measures could prove troublesome down the line.
“If [clothing] comes in one door and goes out the other, then there's a chance that bedbugs could spread,” Kells said.
If storm victims are unsure about any donated clothing or linens they've received, running things through a wash-and-dry cycle is the best option if available, according to Kells.
The New York State Integrated Pest Management Program, drawing on the expertise of Cornell University scientists as well as state environmental and agricultural officials, has additional recommendations for organizations handling potentially infested donations. Clothes, shoes, linens, and plush toys should be sorted on clean linoleum floors, inside a perimeter of double-sided tape that prevents the bugs from escaping. Organizations should also ban all cardboard boxes for donations and use clear plastic bags, according to the program.
However, organizations probably shouldn't count on spotting bedbugs as they're sorting clothes.
“Think about the labor and time taken to check all of the crevices and buttonholes and under the folds of collars,” Kells said. “Realistically, the probability of finding bedbugs that way would be like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.”
Don't count on a blizzard or nor'easter to drive bedbugs out of storm-affected areas, either. Turns out cold is no sure killer of the hardy pests. Kells said he's had reports of bedbugs surviving Minnesota winters in unheated cabins, only to re-emerge to feast on summer vacationers.
“To kill bedbugs with cold outright requires 0 degrees Fahrenheit for four days,” Kells said. “You're not going to get those conditions in what we're dealing with now.”
You have to give the bedbug some grudging admiration -- it is a survivor, able to hide in tiny cracks and evade most over-the-counter insecticides and treatments. Their method for night feeding on victims is insidiously clever: The bedbug delivers anesthetics and anticoagulants along with its bite, all the better to keep us asleep as it gorges, sucking up two to three times its weight in blood within 10 minutes.
And, despite the annoyance and itchiness, bedbugs bites are much less dangerous than other kinds of insect bites, as they transmit no diseases. In contrast, ticks, mosquitoes, and lice can spread Lyme disease, West Nile virus, and typhus, among a host of other horrors.
Yet the prospect of a bedbug infestation is a special, almost mystical, menacing presence in the brains of many New Yorkers.
“We reserve a special kind of enmity for bedbugs because, though humans generally do not like being anywhere other than at the pinnacle of a food chain, there is a particular horror associated with being consumed while relatively helpless, asleep in what should be the security of one’s own bed,” University of Illinois entomologist May Barenbaum wrote in a 2010 op-ed for the New York Times.
At the moment, raising concerns about bedbugs may seem callous or frivolous, given that people are continue to be hungry and cold and powerless after the storm. Conditions remain dire in some areas affected by Superstorm Sandy. On Thursday, 80,000 homes in the Rockaways still lacked electricity, including 16,000 that lost power after a nor'easter swept through this week.
If given footholds, bedbugs can continue to make storm victims miserable for months to come. Professional exterminators are expensive, and many of Sandy's victims live in public housing and low-income communities. It's possible that bedbugs may be an added, unwelcome challenge for those left destitute in Sandy's wake as they struggle to rebuild.