NEW YORK At the height of Superstorm Sandy, city residents watching seawater pour into the subway system couldn't help but wonder: What will become of all the rats?
Four months later, that's still a mystery.
And experts aren't so sure about stories of hordes of displaced rodents fleeing the flood zone and taking up residence in buildings that were previously rat-free.
TV stations and newspapers have been rife with reports about rats infesting parked cars and fleeing the East River waterfront for the brownstones of Brooklyn Heights and exterminators enjoying a boom in business.
For some city officials, the last straw came a week ago when a rodent problem forced a two-day closure of Magnolia Bakery, a Manhattan landmark often credited with starting a national cupcake craze. Within days, a city councilwoman floated a proposal to create a $500,000 emergency rat mitigation program for storm-impacted neighborhoods.
But the city's health department, which collects reams of data about the rat population and maps infestations looking for trends, said rodent complaints actually had declined since the late October storm, which was spawned when Hurricane Sandy merged with two other weather systems.
"The Health Department conducted extensive inspections in flood zones after Hurricane Sandy, provided guidance to home owners and baited the area. But we did not see an increase in the rat population," the agency said in a statement. "Large storms can flush out rats, but they also drown many rats, and the net effect of large storms is often a decrease in the rat population."
The number of rodent-related citations issued by health inspectors has dropped as well.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the city's subway system, the nation's largest, also dismissed tales of rats being stirred up by Sandy.
"We noticed no unusual rat activity or rodent activity in the wake of the storm," agency spokesman Charles Seaton said.
He also said that when water was pumped out of flooded tunnels and stations, there weren't large numbers of rat carcasses left behind.
The idea of a mass rat migration drew ridicule from Richard Reynolds, who leads a group of dog owners who conduct urban rat hunts.
"What happened to the rats? Nothing! We're finding rats right where we've always found them," he said. "I think this whole idea that there has been some kind of major relocation of rats is just good news media fodder."
He noted, as did other experts, that Norwegian rats, the species found in New York, are known for being especially strong swimmers.
"I have seen them dive over 70 feet, swim 500 yards, give me the finger and head for the hills," he said. "Hurricane Sandy is not going to affect these critters."
Hard scientific data, though, is still largely lacking, and there is plenty of room for debate.
Retired pest control expert Dale Kaukeinen, who spent 30 years in the extermination business, said his first instinct was that Sandy probably decimated the rodent population in some neighborhoods. But he said he couldn't rule out the possibility that displaced rats had moved into new territory.
"They are adaptable. They can swim. They can move distances," he said, citing radio telemetry studies showing that rats can move several miles if displaced by environmental conditions.