Traffic is flowing across the Grand Avenue Bridge as freely as the Walnut Creek waters below it. But thousands of local and commuting motorists traversing the creek via winding residential detours caused by bridge construction last year remember a time when travel between Des Moines and West Des Moines was more tumultuous. It was tricky, and even dangerous during rush hour and when school let out for the day. As time wore on and construction continued, the bridge project’s completion date was extended further and further past promised deadlines until it was more than merely inconvenient, it was downright frustrating. And for local business owners, it was costly. The neighborhood stirred.
“I’ll tell ya what’s taking so long: It takes more than three guys to build a bridge!” Frank Yacavona told Cityview in October. The owner of the nearby pub Pal Joey’s was admittedly more than frustrated. “I look out my window every day and see just a couple guys over there working. Fortunately, I have loyal customers, but attracting any new business? Forget about it.”
Pal Joey’s wasn’t the only local business with complaints about the project’s delays. From the time the road closed on March 25, 2013, and re-opened almost nine months later — 11 weeks past the original deadline — three neighborhood businesses closed, one (Casey’s on 63rd) delayed its own construction and grand opening, and the rest suffered economic strife. After all was said and done, a lingering question remained unanswered: Why did the project take so long?
City officials offered a score of excuses — everything from the uncovering of ancient Native American artifacts along the creek bed to the existence of guano smears in the nearby trees, which led experts to fear the project was upsetting a rare bat habitat — none of which turned out to be true. So what was the truth?
The lies have unraveled, as webs of deception so often do, and, as it turns out, it wasn’t bats in the belfry — it was snakes in the grass.
Fearing the ophidian
Ophiniophobia, the fear of snakes, plagues one in three adult people. Take a walk or ride down the Walnut Creek recreational trail, and you’ll likely become one in those three. The trail meanders under the Grand Avenue Bridge and has an estimated 70,000 daily users ranging from neighborhood children on skateboards and scooters to senior citizens out for a stroll. But more and more startling stories are coming from these trail users — stories that will make a person’s skin crawl.
The following is one of numerous emails Cityview received from Waterbury neighborhood residents and trail users:
“My son Aiden came home with a swollen bite mark on his calf after riding his skateboard down there (near Walnut Creek along the trail),” wrote Rebecca White, a Waterbury area resident on Feb. 29. “It was the first nice day we had in a long time, and he just wanted to ride the skateboard he’d gotten. He returned an hour later crying with blood oozing down his leg. I took him to the emergency room, and the doctor said he’d never seen anything like it, but he guessed it was some sort of snake bite.”
Aiden White is currently in intensive care in a special hospital in Kuwait, where doctors have experience in successfully treating such injuries.
Plague of the Iowa Puff Adder
A diagnosis of White’s injury revealed the bite to be that of a rare reptile of the Bitis arietans family, according to special agent Peter Patter of the Federal Environmental Anomalies Reserve Agency (FEARA). The snakes found along the Walnut Creek watershed are not Puff Adders, which are considered Africa’s “deadliest snake” due to the number of human casualties they claim — they are a rare hybrid relative; the first of its kind. FEARA officials have been studying them feverishly since the first was captured about a mile south of Ashworth Park at the Walnut Creek/Raccoon River tributary on March 3.
“Puff Adders reach an average length of around one meter, and they’re solidly built with a wide girth,” explained Patter. “These appear to be very similar but are able to live in wet cold environments instead of restricted to tropical forests and deserts like the Puff Adder.”
Patter and his team have been combing the watershed in the area since White’s bite was reported earlier this month. So far they’ve uncovered 822 snakes of the Puff Adder genus, most of which are in their infancy, he said.
“Also like the Puff Adder, these snakes’ color patterns apparently can vary depending on where they live, and the fangs are equally large and venomous,” said Patter. “According to our lab tests, the venom is, like the Puff Adder, powerful enough to kill a grown man with a single bite. We strongly advise people to stay away from the area where snake sightings are being reported.”
Thirty-two claimed sightings have been reported along the Walnut Creek watershed and rec trail in March alone, 18 of which have been scientifically confirmed.
“My wife was bit on the leg by one of these snakes,” wrote Jim Staffordin a March 12 letter to Cityview. “I saw it. It just jumped out and bit her while we were on our Sunday stroll. The doctors say she’ll probably pull through because she’s pretty fit for her age (82), but it’s a very scary thing. I don’t like spiders or snakes.”
In a March 14 email from a 31-year-old avid cyclist from Urbandale, Jack Hart: “One of them fell down on my head from a tree this morning as I was riding my Trek. Fortunately I was wearing my helmet and booking along at about 32 mph, so it didn’t get a chance to latch on. But it scared the shit outta me!”
FEARA agents advise that these snakes rely on camouflage for protection and lie still if approached. Because of this, people accidentally step on them and get bitten.
“Many fatalities occur because bites are not treated correctly, leading to infection and gangrene,” Patter warned.
Local hospitals have confirmed a total of 62 venom infection cases from snakebites since White’s, and two elderly patients have died from the infection so far. Meanwhile, the hybrid Iowa Puff Adder continues to plague the neighborhood, all but deadening the typically active Walnut Creek Trail. People are demanding answers, linking the outbreak to disturbing the snake nests during the city’s Grand Avenue Bridge project.
Even local environmental agencies are raising an eyebrow to the City of Des Moines and its project contractor, Mollusk & Molasses Bridge Builders Inc. Directors of both the Iowa Department of Natural Conservation and the Polk County Natural Resource Conservation Department have sent letters to the City asking why they haven’t been informed of this groundbreaking rare snake breed discovery.
“Somehow the Grand Avenue Bridge project unearthed these snake spawns, and now people are getting hurt,” said Polk County Natural Resources Conservation Department spokesperson Shannon Mann. “Our department has made multiple inquiries to the City of Des Moines, which seems to be protecting its contractor (MMBB) for some reason. And I know the State has done the same. We feel our department and its experts have been robbed of taking part in this substantial environmental discovery.”
In addition to that, Rebecca White and hundreds of others are asking the City why it deliberately aided in covering up a clear community threat.
“Bridge building takes time if you want it done correctly and according to safety regulations,” offered Des Moines Engineer Skip Allung in an interview. “In fact, the delays had nothing to do with any cover-up, and the Grand Avenue Bridge project had nothing at all to do with the uncovering of this snake species.
“More than likely, Val Air Ballroom’s bass reverberations from its concerts jostled the Earth enough to hatch the eggs. So talk to West Des Moines officials, because we’re just doing our jobs here in Des Moines.”
“That is quite possibly the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” said West Des Moines Infrastructure Development Director Ian O’Cennte.
More probable, said Patter, is that the snakes are a product of ancient migration, evolution or environmental pollution.
“We’ve been taking water samples, and things are a mess here,” Patter said. “Of course there are very high nitrate levels and excessive traces of farming and fertilizer chemicals, likely from field runoff, which are pretty typical for Iowa’s drinking water supply, unfortunately.”
But Patter believes a different kind of farm is more likely to blame — the Google data service farm, which was constructed west of Clive two years ago.
“What isn’t often talked about is the amount of air and ground pollution these service farms emit into the environment,” Patter advised. “We’re talking about carbon monoxide from diesel-fueled generators, radiation from massive cooling systems, not to mention their gluttonous consumption of power.”
According to a 2012 New York Times article, “most data centers, by design, consume vast amounts of energy in an incongruously wasteful manner. Online companies typically run their facilities at maximum capacity around the clock, whatever the demand. As a result, data centers can waste 90 percent or more of the electricity they pull off the grid.
“To guard against a power failure, they further rely on banks of generators that emit diesel exhaust.”
Worldwide, these digital warehouses consume 30 billion watts of electricity, which is equivalent to the output of about 30 nuclear power plants. Despite its re-engineered software and cooling systems that decrease wasted power and redesigned hardware, Google alone uses nearly 300 million watts, The Times reports.
Google representatives would not comment on camera but released this statement: “Google Inc. has nothing to do with any snake epidemic in Des Moines, period,” said Communications Director Dick Mutchler.
Snake slayers and troubleshooters
Regardless of the theories — Google’s data farm pollution, Iowa’s chemical runoff or Val Air Ballroom’s Earth-rattling bass — several mysteries remain unsolved. How did a deadly African snake species come to live in Walnut Creek? Does it have anything at all to do with the Grand Avenue Bridge project? If so, was there a government and corporate cover-up?
Public outcry has been fierce since the findings were revealed, from picket lines along Robert D. Ray Drive to unprecedented social media buzz the likes of which Des Moines has never experienced. The first of three social media sites to launch, in fact, was a “Dam Walnut Creek” Facebook page. As of press time it has collected 1,082,312 likes since its creation on March 10. A possible solution, writes one member, would be to shrink the snakes’ habitat and prevent it from spreading further down river by damming the Walnut Creek/Raccoon River tributary. Unfortunately, that would flood most of 63rd Street as far as Valley Junction and Greenwood Park, according to Allung.
On Twitter, 3,060,206 are following the conspiracy revelations of @DeMethSnakes, which is based on the farm pollution theory. The owner of the handle insists anhydrous ammonia and other factory farm fertilizer chemicals commonly used in making methamphetamine have aided in the breeding of what they’re calling “Meth Snakes,” explaining the rabid-like behaviors and temperaments displayed by the carnivorous reptiles are akin to that of meth-heads.
“Obv. High on #meth #WCsnakes have gotn faster & r hunting at all hrs day & nite,” was a recent tweet on the site.
On Instagram, graphic images are being uploaded daily by the public of snake sightings and bite injuries at various stages of infection — including a snapshot of a doe in the timber along the creek with its leg bitten off up to the thigh, nicknamed “Tri-Pod” online.
Despite all efforts, the snake population apparently continues to grow, and so do the surviving snakes. One adult male snake, captured alive by FEARA field experts two weeks ago, measured nearly six feet in length. After careful lab dissection, scientists extracted what Des Moines Police have confirmed to be the hand of Phil Aschlepe, a local homeless man. In the fist-shaped hand was an unidentifiable penis minus the head, leading officials to believe the man may now be incontinent. A recent DMPD press release warns anyone who sees a man with urine-colored eyeballs to call the Polk County Crime Stoppers hotline at 223-1400.
Meanwhile, young Aiden White continues his fight in a third-world clinic, where communications are so limited his family has not received word on his condition in eight days, according to his mother.
“I’m not exactly sure where Kuwait even is, but I’m blessed to have two other children to fall back on,” she said tearfully. “At least, I hope so. They are fishing in Walnut Creek right now.” APRIL FOOLS!