Termites, New Orleans & Katrina

In an article in American Entomologist dated Fall, 2008, scientist Gregg Henderson suggests that termites may have contributed to the destruction of Hurricane Katrina.

In 2000, Henderson surveyed the floodwalls in New Orleans. He found places where Formosan subterranean termites were attacking the seams of the floodwalls. The seams of the floodwalls had been made with material called bagasse. Bagasse is made from residue of processed sugarcane. Sugarcane is a source of cellulose, just as wood and paper are.

After Hurricane Katrina, Henderson surveyed the floodwalls again. He found numerous places where the seams showed evidence of termite activity. Henderson also suspects that the Formosan subterranean termites had made underground tunnels through the earthen levees. The termite tunnels would allow water to flow throughout the interior of the levees in a process known as “piping”.

The Formosan subterranean termite originally came from China. They have been known to cause damage to levees in China for many years. Formosan subterranean termites were accidentally imported into the United States, possibly in the holds of cargo ships. Now they are established across the entire Gulf Coast. They are found from South Carolina to Texas. They are also found in Hawaii.

Formosan subterranean termites live in very large colonies. There can be millions of termites in one colony. Because of their numbers, these termites can cause serious damage in a relatively short time.

In his article, Henderson suggests that it is likely that termites will cause damage to the levee system by their tunnels. He recommends using ground-penetrating radar to survey the levees in New Orleans for termite activity.

Experts recommend that homeowners have their home inspected annually. Termite control professionals are trained to recognize the signs of termite activity. They can also point out structural and landscaping conditions that might give termites easy access to the home.