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Plague fears as Sandy flushes out hungry rats

Nowhere to go ... Floodwaters fill the Bowling Green subway station in New York's Battery Park.

Nowhere to go ... Floodwaters fill the Bowling Green subway station in New York's Battery Park. Photo: AFP

New York City could be set for another flood — this time, of rats.

In the wake of superstorm Sandy, thousands of rats are expected to be forced from their underground lairs and onto the Big Apple's streets.

The storm surge has caused severe flooding to subways and road tunnels, where the rodents are known to live and breed, driving them to the surface in search of food and new homes.

New threat ... 'Rats are incredibly good swimmers. And they can climb'

New threat ... 'Rats are incredibly good swimmers. And they can climb' Photo: Steve Lunham

Rick Ostfeld, from the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in New York, told the Huffington Post that the rodents could infest Manhattan's streets and spread disease.

"Rats are incredibly good swimmers. And they can climb," he said.

"One of things we know can exacerbate disease is massive dispersal.

Home sweet home ... Flood damage to the South Ferry station of the No.1 subway line in Lower Manhattan.

Home sweet home ... Flood damage to the South Ferry station of the No.1 subway line in Lower Manhattan. Photo: AP/New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority

"Rats are highly social individuals and live in a fairly stable social structure. If this storm disturbs that, rats could start infesting areas they never did before.

"It's not just about the high winds and rain.

"A rat disturbance is something we should be concerned about."

He said the rat dispersal could result in increased risk of infectious diseases carried by urban rats, including leptospirosis, hantavirus, typhus, salmonella, and even the plague.

However the huge volume of water from superstorm Sandy was expected to dilute the pathogens and lessen risks to public health.

Exterminator Benett Pearlman, of New York-based Positive Pest Management Corp, told National Geographic that the floodwaters were likely to have killed many rats, including the old, sick and new mothers with young in their nests.

However many thousands of rats would have made it to the surface alive and now were trapped above ground, searching for food.

He said they would feast on new sources of food on the city's streets, including rotting garbage, other rats, pigeons, and fish washed ashore during the flood.

The well-fed rats would then burrow beneath buildings and establish new homes, squeezing into holes as small as 1.3 centimetres.

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