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Rats are a problem in any city. But post-Katrina New Orleans offered an especially friendly habitat: piles of trash, blighted homes, fewer predators. So the rat population spiked. These days, city officials are taking a methodical approach to rat control. They're not just baiting traps.
As Keith O'Brien reports, they're attacking the problems that invite the rats and they're winning.
KEITH O'BRIEN, BYLINE: Marvin Thompson knew he faced a difficult task when he was hired last year as principal at John McDonogh High School.
MARVIN THOMPSON: The day that I pulled up to this building, I thought it was condemned.
O'BRIEN: The structure was sagging, leaky, built in 1898 and missing entire window panes. Students inside were underperforming academically. And then, there were the rats. Thompson and his two children didn't even finish unpacking his office before they discovered that problem.
THOMPSON: They were in here 10 minutes and I hear this big crash. My daughter - I come running over and she's laying on the floor. And my son is hiding behind the file cabinet laughing at her, as I watch this big giant rat crawl from that pipe up into the ceiling.
O'BRIEN: For a while, Thompson avoided his office. And then, when he couldn't do that anymore, he developed a system for at least avoiding the rats.
THOMPSON: Literally every morning, I would put my key in my door, knock on the door, just to let him know I'm about to come in because there were days where he'd be on my desk or wherever.
O'BRIEN: Dozens of rats were inside the school. And Thompson didn't know what to do about them, until the city showed up with a plan.
CLAUDIA RIEGEL: Who works with rats here?
O'BRIEN: Claudia Riegel talks about rats a lot. She's director of the New Orleans Mosquito, Termite and Rodent Control Board, so pests are her job, a job made harder after Hurricane Katrina. In 2007, her staff received almost 2,900 rodent complaints. That's more than seven calls a day.
RIEGEL: We would bait an entire ZIP code. We would the bait the storm drains of an entire ZIP code.
O'BRIEN: But it wasn't enough. And that's when city officials decided to change their approach and jump on a hot industry trend. The buzz words are integrated pest management. In short: Forget the rats, fix the problems.
RIEGEL: Vegetation management, sanitation, some building construction. And a lot of it is just minor: closing up holes, taking the trash out before the last person left for the day. And from 2006 to today, I mean, it's been amazing.
O'BRIEN: Even as the population of New Orleans has increased, rodent complaints have fallen nearly 70 percent. And so when Riegel's agency landed a federal grant last year, she used the money to apply the same proactive approach at John McDonogh.
RIEGEL: We wanted to show that if you can close and deal with the problems in this type of building, you can do it anywhere. You can do it.
O'BRIEN: It didn't take long to identify, at least, where the rats were living.
THOMPSON: You're going to see where their water supply used to be and how they sustained themselves. And right behind that is the cafeteria. So they had food and they had water. And Claudia's folks figured this out. This is the electrical room.
O'BRIEN: Principal Marvin Thompson opens a padlocked door into a brick-walled refuge that once housed an old toilet. The city had that removed last summer. The rats' primary water source was gone. And before even thinking about poison or traps, Riegel's team came with caulk guns and plaster. The goal: seal the building, every crack, every hole.
RIEGEL: The technique of going out and just putting bait, and bait, and bait, and walking away wasn't working. And so we closed the envelope of the school. That started stressing out the animals. They took our bait and we did trapping. And all of a sudden, that school is rat-free.
O'BRIEN: Riegel's team is doing the same thing in city buildings and other schools. And they've pushed for better trash cans in parks and public spaces. But their work is hardly over, and Thompson still has his problems at John McDonogh.
THOMPSON: Did you get to school on time today? You're lying to me, aren't you?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: No, I ain't lying.
THOMPSON: Tell me the truth.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah.
O'BRIEN: The school has a massive budget shortfall and declining enrollment. But it's been months since Thompson has seen a rat. And recently, staffers decorated the front office with the school colors. They dressed it up it in a nice, fresh coat of green paint. For NPR News, I'm Keith O'Brien in New Orleans.
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