As you stand in front of the fountain in Jackson Square or walk through the French Quarter peering into courtyards and hearing the faint trickle and splash of a fountain, think about the bugs that these water features attract. Mosquitoes have been plaguing New Orleanians since the first colonists arrived in the 18th century. In addition to biting our ankles and leaving behind itchy welts, mosquitoes spread diseases like Yellow Fever.
It took a long time to combat this disease because people did not understand what exactly caused the fever or how it spread. After the particularly deadly epidemic of 1853, in which 7,849 people died, the city strove to find ways to counter Yellow Fever. One method included burning tar, which was supposed to purify the air. The municipal government also ordered the city's cannons to be fired, supposing that the vibrations would shake the disease out of the air.
The city's swamp setting contributed to the extremely high fever fatalities. Since portions of New Orleans are below sea-level, clean drinking water has always been an issue. Wells are not an option, as digging even a few feet into the ground will hit bogs. So residents relied on cisterns, massive wood or iron cylinders that were open on the top for collecting rainwater, to provide clean water. Of course, mosquitoes are attracted to standing water and lay their eggs in the stagnant pools.
The last Yellow Fever epidemic in the United States struck New Orleans in 1905, which was the same year that doctors working at Walter Reed Hospital discovered the link between mosquitoes and Yellow Fever. With an understanding of the disease, New Orleans officials were able to fight it, primarily by ordering that all cisterns be covered.
The city's fog trucks drive slowly down the streets of New Orleans, spraying pesticides into the air in order to kill the bugs and their eggs. The agency also uses an airplane for marsh areas. So while you pause at this fountain, keep in mind the tens of thousands of New Orleanians for whom water such as this proved deadly.
To find out about how termites have impacted the very foundations of this city, proceed to the corner of Chartres and Toulouse. Simply exit Jackson Square toward St. Louis Cathedral and immediately turn left. Follow Chartres St. for a block and a half. As you walk, take note of the evenly spaced silver circles that dot the sidewalks of the French Quarter.