DALLAS — As Stuart Kraft shoves a steel rod into a watery hole, he sighs, “I’m just probing for depth.”
Each time he investigates, the hole seems to grow in size and collect more water. Over the past three months, he says it has swelled from a puddle to a swampy pit roughly three feet deep and just as wide.
“It got bigger, and it got bigger, now it’s absolutely frightening," he said. "It’s a mosquito-breeding factory.”
That "factory" is directly behind Kraft's Design District studio, where he carves scavenged wood into furniture and sculptures. It’s in a row of industrial buildings near the Trinity River filled with galleries and lofts, many of which double as apartments, including Kraft’s.
The mosquitoes now seem to constantly hover, he said.
“This morning I came out, and five minutes later, I had 17 bites all over my ankle,” Kraft said.
He’s convinced a leaky city water main underground is the source of the problem, though multiple calls to City Hall haven’t resulted in any repairs.
“The city says this isn’t their problem,” Kraft said.
Randy Payton, assistant director at Dallas Water Utilities, described the leak in a statement as "small" and "not causing any damage." He said the city didn't know about the leak until Wednesday, but will repair it within five days.
Even the smallest puddles are now garnering new attention as health authorities declare Dallas the “epicenter” of the West Nile virus this year.
“I am very concerned,” Dallas County’s Health Director Zachary Thompson conceded in a Monday news conference. “When you’re in the epicenter right now of the country, it’s imperative we step up our prevention efforts.”
Thompson said Dallas is seeing more cases of the virus than any other county in the nation. So far, 20 people in Dallas County have been infected and one person has died. That death is apparently the country’s first involving West Nile this year, prompting health officials to warn that this summer could be Dallas’ worst for the deadly illness.
“It’s probably going to be the most severe season we’ve had,” said Dr. James Luby with UT Southwestern Medical Center.
Since appearing in Texas in 2002, the disease peaked in Dallas County in 2006. That year, more than 100 people became sick and four of them died. Directors said it appears the number of infections and deaths this year will surpass those of 2006.
“We have to expect more deaths,” Dr. Luby warned. “This promises to be at least as severe as 2006.”
Since the illness is spread through mosquitoes, county leaders are urging homeowners to dump standing water and to wear insect repellent when outside.
“Increase in moisture has allowed an increase in mosquito activity,” said Christopher Perkins, Dallas County’s Medical Director.
In response, the City of Dallas has started spraying neighborhoods with insecticide for the first time since 2010.
Tracking the disease is also proving difficult.
Currently, crews trap mosquitoes at 90 sites across the city, and then later examine the insects for the virus. Dallas County’s entomologist Scott Sawlis now spends much of his day patrolling neighborhoods and hanging traps.
“We need to know what kind of mosquitoes, the number of mosquitoes, and if they are carrying a disease,” Sawlis said shortly after hanging a trap at a county facility.
Officials gave up testing dead birds a couple of years ago, because it proved too unreliable in determining where the virus was concentrated. Birds can migrate for miles, but mosquitoes can only fly over a half-mile area.
Right now, hundreds of the pesky bugs seem to be flying around Kraft’s studio.
“I’m just the oldster with the underlying condition that dies from West Nile,” he said. “So, that’s kind of why I’m a little concerned.”