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SOS Pest Control's Franke says the city contract is a very small part of his business. "We make about 50 to 100 calls a year exclusively for the Health Department," he says. "Do I think Kansas City has a rat problem? Let's just say that Kansas City has a healthy rat population, especially in certain areas of town."
"People get freaked out by rats, they really do," says Swoyer, who will never forget his first professional run-in with a rodent. "I was moving a board leaning against a building, and a rat jumped out at me. I jumped back myself — about 30 feet.
"I can understand the discontent people have at the idea of these old sewers being ripped out," Swoyer continues. "But it's not going to be 'open the sluices, here come the rats.' There will be some rat issues around town, but for the most part, rats living in the sewers are just going to move to different parts of the sewer."
Jennifer Kincaid, the external communications liaison for the Kansas City Water Services Department, echoes Swoyer's calming refrain. She says the 25-year, $500 million Overflow Control Program isn't designed to rip up as many of the aging sewer lines as rumor suggests.
"There will be some replacement of pipes," she says, "but we'll be making more cost-effective repairs that don't involve digging up the old sewer lines. There's a new technology that allows us to use a mylar product, almost like a balloon, in the existing lines to seal any cracks or problems."
Kincaid adds: "I spoke to one of our rat gurus here at the Water Department, and he told me that he's seen a lot of miles of our city sewer and really hasn't seen a lot of rats in the lines unless it's an area near a grain silo or a major food source. I don't think our OCP project is going to stir up a lot of rats."
But not everyone is so comfortable with the idea.
"This city is a giant rat's nest," said a 76-year-old woman I met at Home Depot last week. "I'll never forget the night, in the 1960s, I was driving with my husband to a restaurant in the West Bottoms. We made a wrong turn and found ourselves on this strange street, and we were surrounded by rats. Thousands of them. We barely escaped with our lives."
She put a box of rat poison in her cart and moved on. I chose a different brand.