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BY YANNIC RACK | Listening to Lower Manhattan residents talk about the rat problem in their neighborhood, you could easily picture a world overtaken by the rodents — something akin to a reimagined version of “Planet of the Apes.”
“People don’t walk outside at night, they don’t sit in the outdoor cafes, if they live there they know it’s going to happen,” Diane Lapson, a Tribeca resident and Community Board 1 member, recounted at the board’s Quality of Life committee meeting Sept. 17.
“After it gets dark, people just turn around and say, ‘I think it’s time to go,’ because the rats are coming,” she added. “And the rats are huge, they’re like cats. They’re not afraid of anything.”
Although the topic is by now a mainstay at committee meetings, the evening’s discussion was particularly concerned with one part of the problem: commercial garbage, left out on the sidewalks for hours — providing a welcome feast for the neighborhood’s nocturnal rodent population.
A handful of residents came to tell their stories to Salvatore Arrona, the director of policy at the city’s Business Integrity Commission, and Bill Courtney, its director of investigations.
The commission, formerly known as the Organized Crime Control Commission, oversees the commercial waste industry in the city.
Arrona said every commercial establishment has to hire a private carter to pick up the trash, and it is up to the carter to determine whether the business requires pickups once or multiple times a week.
“That’s insane,” chipped in a disgruntled Mitchell Frohman, another committee member. “The carting company decides that? Then the establishment pays off the carting company and that’s what it comes down to.”
Dan Ackerman, the assistant vice president of operations at the Downtown Alliance, said a “rat academy” had recently been organized for local businesses. But other than issuing advice — like closing garbage container tops, using bleach rags and incessant cleaning — he said there were limits to what this could achieve. “It comes down to enforcement,” he said.
The city budget, agreed upon in June, now includes $2.9 million to combat rats. According to the city’s Health Dept., its rat-curbing effort is currently still staffed by nine people and funded with $400,000 across seven neighborhoods. But a new initiative, using the extra funding, would expand this to 50 exterminators, public health sanitarians and a population biologist, which will benefit neighborhoods all over the city, including Lower Manhattan.
The department has been rolling out a novel strategy in Manhattan and the Bronx of intense baiting in so-called “rat reservoirs” — around parks, subways and sewers — which the city says gas reduced rat sightings in those areas by 80 to 90 percent.
However, none of the initial focus areas listed in the initiative’s pilot program are located in Lower Manhattan. What’s left for now then is teaching local businesses about best practices and working with the Sanitation Dept. to improve collection efforts and provide solar compactors and other rat-proof bins.
Residents seem to think it’s not enough, especially when it comes to garbage bags left out on the street, an easy meal for rats that can chew through most anything.
“On any given night there are mountains of garbage, and there has to be a better way of handling this,” said Patricia Moore, the committee’s chairperson who lives in the Financial District. “The rats just feast on the garbage.”
Suggestions to remedy the problem were discussed at the meeting and ranged from mandating prompt pickup times or cold storage facilities to keep the garbage overnight, to increasing fines for construction sites that contribute to the problem.
“We can brainstorm all we want, but we need someone in the city to take ownership of this problem,” Lapson said. “It’s really getting out of hand.”
In the meantime the best advice offered at the committee meeting was to call in complaints, preferably in bulk.
“I know 311 can be a pain, but more often than not, when you’re calling 311, you get results,” Moore said.