Claudia Riegel

Heading up the New Orleans Mosquito, Termite & Rodent Control Board is just the start of how Claudia Riegel is changing the world of pest management.

Photos courtesy of claudia riegel

Ingenuity, passion, fearlessness, tenacity, exuberance — when it comes to making life better for those around her, Claudia Riegel knows no bounds. As director of the New Orleans Mosquito, Termite & Rodent Control Board (NOMTRCB), she is committed to protecting the residents of New Orleans, focused on staying a step ahead of potential outbreaks and natural disasters. As a collaborator, she enthusiastically engages with other experts and organizations to develop solutions for communities not only in her own region but across the nation and around the world. And as a teacher and mentor, she generously shares all that she knows for the good of each individual and the pest management industry as a whole.

Riegel’s leadership qualities made their debut on the national stage when, as a new member of NOMTRCB, she tackled the devastating impacts of Hurricane Katrina with then-director Ed Bordes in 2005. “Claudia and I were the only staff members whose homes had not been damaged, so we went into action immediately,” he says. “In fact, she cut her honeymoon short to get back to New Orleans, where she worked tirelessly on the many challenges we faced.”

Bill Horan, retired president of Operation Blessing International, who led the nonprofit’s successful expansion into disaster relief efforts, met Riegel in 2005. “Claudia’s work in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina proved that she is a true force of nature — a pest killer for the ages,” he attests. “In New Orleans, we teamed up to manage mosquitoes and rats. Years later, we continue to collaborate on a variety of issues both at home and overseas.”

“A Pest Killer for the Ages”

In the wake of Katrina, Riegel had plenty of opportunities for collaboration, and she rose to every occasion. Her actions in addressing a variety of unusual issues resulting from the storm illustrate her resourcefulness and ability to engage others in fighting the good fight against pest-borne disease.

Mosquitoes in pools: Who saw that coming? Natural disasters bring about some unlikely circumstances and challenges. For example, Katrina’s landfall in late August 2005, followed just three weeks later by Hurricane Rita, caused abandoned swimming pools throughout New Orleans to overflow with water — not the clear, clean, chlorinated water that pools generally contain, but brackish waters that quickly became breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

“I got a call from the Mosquito Control Board a couple months after the storm, and they said that mosquitoes were reproducing like crazy in about 5,400 pools across the area. I asked what I could do to help,” says Horan. “Steve Sackett, the mosquito supervisor at that time, had a solution in mind — introducing mosquitofish (Gambusia) into their IPM program to control the larvae. They didn’t have a source, so I found a supplier and negotiated a deal to buy a million of these tiny fish at 10 cents apiece. When the supplier ran out at 60,000, we figured out how to raise them ourselves in the lab.”

Riegel collaborated with Horan to pull together seven teams of volunteers, including many college students, for this effort, which was largely funded by Operation Blessing. Dr. Imelda Moise, assistant professor of Geography & Regional Studies at the University of Miami, who was at the time working toward her Ph.D., was among them. “I had been studying the impact of fish ponds on mosquito ecology and learned of New Orleans’ struggle with mosquito breeding in swimming pools. We knew that if we shared our knowledge and experience, we would have greater success in resolving the issue.”

The team did resolve the issue. In fact, Horan reports that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) told them they had staved off potential outbreaks of West Nile virus and St. Louis encephalitis. “New Orleans residents were very vulnerable at this time given the state of their living conditions. We were so happy we were able to help,” Horan says.

Riegel in front of NOMTRCB’s facility two weeks after Hurricane Katrina. Damage can be seen from the floodwaters, which reached 11 feet.
Photos courtesy of claudia riegel

Moise says another positive emerged from this experience: Riegel had the opportunity to shine as a leader. “From the first day we worked together, I could see that Claudia really cares for her people and that she sees the good in everyone she interacts with,” she says. “In an encouraging and empowering way, she pushes people to do better than before, and rather than taking any credit herself, she wants others to be celebrated. She sees her leadership through others’ success.”

Rats in the street: An ounce of prevention… A more predictable challenge resulting from a natural disaster is the proliferation of rats. Riegel knew that the unprecedented damage to homes and other structures, coupled with the exorbitant volume of water, would mean displacement of not only people but also rodents. As people began cleaning out and repairing their homes, the trash and debris in the streets became rat magnets, drawing rodents into neighborhoods where they discovered that they and their families would be well-fed.

“We went from door to door to evaluate the pest issues plaguing residents during this devastating time,” says Riegel. “In some areas of the city, we saw a lot of fresh burrows in backyards. We knew we needed to act immediately to prevent an explosion of rat populations.”

Recognizing the need to protect pets and other non-target animals while effectively controlling rats, Riegel decided to bait the storm drains in these hard-hit neighborhoods, which certainly didn’t need another problem complicating their recovery efforts. Due to the sheer size of this project, she reached out for support. “The pest control manufacturers were incredibly generous after the storm, donating bait, insecticides, and other pest control products and supplies. Their generosity enabled us to quickly provide abatement in areas with residents and first responders,” she says.

Horan also lent a hand, mobilizing teams of Operation Blessing volunteers, who were trained and supervised by Mosquito Board inspectors. The teams moved from storm drain to storm drain, attaching flexible metal rods holding rodenticide blocks to thousands of cast-iron storm drain grates in and around the city. Riegel’s team monitored the blocks, replacing them as needed, to ensure ongoing control.

One more: The trouble with tires. Sometimes the answer to a problem isn’t as much about creative pest management methods as engaging and educating the community. In the years following Katrina and Rita, the practice of dumping tires — practically anywhere — became commonplace. Mosquito infestations became severe. Riegel asked Moise to help. “We worked together to identify areas where people were most likely to dump tires and we increased surveillance there. We also identified which species of mosquitoes were likely to breed in tires, and we analyzed how those species react to various pesticides. Most importantly, we recognized the need to bring in the city to communicate the health risks, work out a plan for mobilizing the community and empower them to work with us,” says Moise. “Claudia and her team engaged community groups and residents, building awareness of the health threats and of the city’s policy to pick up as many as four tires from a residence with each regular trash pickup. They effectively mobilized the community, as they so often do, to take responsibility for their own health and well-being.”

Extraordinary Scholar & Researcher

Riegel was born in Chicago, four years after her parents moved to the United States from Brazil in 1965. When she was 4, the trio went back to live in Brazil for a couple of years, but they returned to the Chicagoland suburbs in 1974, the year her brother was born. In spite of not knowing English well at that time (“Kids are adaptable; it took me a while to learn the language, but then it was never an issue again.”), Riegel says that she couldn’t have asked for a better childhood.

“My parents both worked for United Airlines, so we went to Brazil every summer. In fact, we traveled a lot,” she recounts. “My family was also extremely supportive of my education. Education was a priority in our household, and I loved school. I knew very early on that I wanted to go to graduate school for an advanced degree.”

At Purdue University, Riegel worked for two summers in Dr. Don Huber’s lab, where she found she enjoyed plant pathology. She earned a Bachelor of Science in plant molecular biology at Purdue and went on to earn her Master of Science in plant pathology at the University of Georgia. But it was her next move, joining Dr. Donald Dickson’s plant pathology program at the University of Florida (UF), that led to the pivotal change in the course of her career.

“We were lucky to get Claudia,” says Dickson, who worked with Riegel in testing soil fumigants on nematodes. “Her grades proved that she was obviously very smart, and her energy was boundless. When she gave presentations, she sold that information in a way few people can. She’d light up the room and engage every person in that audience.”

She was also very good at delivering on Dickson’s trademark directive to “Just get the job done.” He recalls, “We spent long days in the field, mainly working with peanuts to measure the product’s efficacy and identify any adverse effects. Claudia would be covered in dirt from head to toe — it didn’t bother her a bit.”

It didn’t bother Dow AgroSciences, either, according to Dr. Philip Koehler, endowed professor of urban entomology at UF, who set Riegel up with a fortuitous interview with the company. “Dow AgroSciences would conduct student interviews each year to help the students develop their interviewing skills. Although Claudia was not one of my doctoral students, we often talked and she hung out quite a bit with my entomology students. I scheduled her for one of these interviews, but when it was her turn, she had just come in from the field, covered in dirt and grime. She said, ‘I can’t go in like this.’ I said, ‘You have to.’ They not only liked her, they offered her a position working with Formosan termites in Baton Rouge, which she accepted.”

And so Riegel entered the field of entomology. “Sometimes you have to just see what opportunities come along and know when to take advantage of them,” she says. Opportunities continued to come her way as she collaborated with various members of the City of New Orleans Mosquito, Termite & Rodent Control Board.

“I met Claudia when I was a research entomologist with the city. We conducted field trials for termite control products together,” says Dr. Janet McAllister, now a medical entomologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases in Fort Collins, Colo. “When I got the job at the CDC, she took over my role with the city.”

Riegel joined NOMTRCB in 2004, hired by Bordes, who would retire in 2007. He recalls, “Claudia’s work on this important termite research helped us expand that arm of our operation. When Janet decided to accept a position with the CDC, I knew that Claudia would be outstanding in that position. She went on to do amazing things for New Orleans and the pest control industry.”

Among those amazing things was expanding educational opportunities, both internally, among the Board’s team, and externally, with the community and the industry. Riegel worked with Bordes to establish the Board’s Pest Control Academy in 2006, to help pest management professionals learn and share their knowledge and discoveries.

“As we rebuilt after Katrina, we decided to add a classroom to our building,” Bordes says. “We had always enjoyed sharing what we knew with others in the industry, but this program gave Claudia the opportunity to truly bridge the gap between science and operations.”

Since becoming director of the Board in 2011, Riegel has expanded her educational influence even further, drawing people from all over the world to the Academy to learn about, and share their own insights into, mosquitoes, termites, rodents and other pests. She also focuses on the educational development of her team.

“Claudia’s commitment to education begins with her own staff,” says McAllister. “She makes sure they are all cross-trained to be not only competent and confident in their daily work but also prepared to pitch in when needed for special projects — maybe they regularly work with termites but can help with mosquito or rodent work when the need arises, for example. Hiring people can be a true challenge when you’re working in a city program, but Claudia has found ways to build a strong, capable team that gets things done.”

So committed is Riegel to her team that she recently approached Koehler about setting up UF graduate studies right at the Board’s lab in New Orleans. “Unofficially, Claudia has served on graduate committees for the past 10 years, but last year, she officially became an adjunct faculty member, as our provost signed off on placing grad students under her supervision,” Koehler says. “It’s the first time we’ve gotten approval for this type of off-site arrangement. Claudia’s reputation for research excellence and her vision for developing well-rounded students, who are able to take distance classes with us as they learn practical applications in the lab, clinched the university’s decision to move forward.”

All in a Day’s Work

“Every day is different,” Riegel says about her job. It’s no wonder. There’s an administrative component, which includes budgeting, program decisions, working with city administrators, prioritization of projects and such. Then there’s the research component, which focuses on identifying and controlling threats to public health and property due to mosquito, rodent and termite infestations. Finally, the outreach component ranges from informing and educating the community to speaking to audiences around the globe and collaborating with partners who need assistance in other countries.

Among Riegel’s notable collaborative efforts: the development of a rat mitigation program for Haiti’s only pediatric hospital, St. Damien’s, following the catastrophic 2010 earthquake there, and of a comprehensive pest control program for Zanmi Beni, a home Horan co-founded in Port-au-Prince for abandoned children left homeless by that devastating event. In fact, Riegel and her colleagues frequently lend their expertise to efforts in Honduras, Guatemala, Cuba and many other countries when they are threatened by diseases such as Zika, West Nile virus, chikungunya and dengue.

Here at home, she collaborates often with the University of Florida, University of Miami, Texas A&M and other educational institutions on research; with private industry on product testing; and with other organizations who either need her help or have help to offer New Orleans.

“Claudia is great at building partnerships with agencies and with scientists; she appreciates what each of us brings to the collaboration,” says Moise. “When we had a Zika outbreak in Miami, she came down to witness and understand what we were doing to determine whether some of our practices might be applicable to her communities. She is always thinking ahead and anticipating the next challenge.”

It’s all very exciting and rewarding to Riegel. “I have one of the best jobs anyone could ever want because there is the potential to impact a lot of people’s lives for the better,” she says. “Whether I’m developing plans, testing products, offering learning or career opportunities, or changing a policy to help improve someone’s quality of life, it’s all fantastic. I love what I do.”

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Gene White

October 2019
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