The devastation of Hurricane Florence was no accident. It was the result of decades of poor policy decisions compounding the ravages of the storm. It’s been eleven days since the storm raked through the Carolinas. It caused at least 36 deaths, historic flooding, and one environmental catastrophe after another. It didn’t have to be this way.
We're Hanging On In Uncertainty
My own home in Pender County, outside of Wilmington, North Carolina, is along the Black River. I know it’s flooded. I’m unsure about the extent of the flooding because we still — still — can’t get there. The flash flooding during the hurricane completely wiped out hundreds of bridges and crossings all over southeastern North Carolina, and then the rivers began their slow rise, inundating many of the remaining roads.
The rivers rise and fall slowly here on the coastal plain. For us, the best case scenario is that the water level remained below the height of tables our belongings sit on. But even in that best case scenario we will have had water in house for at least a week. We know we’ll be returning to a nightmare — the only question is how bad it will be.
Our Home Is Likely Steeping In Hog Sh*t
It’s also not just water in our home and thousands of others throughout the region. Hundreds of factory farms are located in the floodplain. Many of these are hog farms which store hog waste in open-air lagoons. The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality reports that more than 100 of these swine waste lagoons were damaged, flooded or in danger of flooding. At least 32 have discharged hog waste into the floodwaters and downstream communities. Environmental groups also reported two total failures of lagoons that released an estimated 7.3 million gallons of hog waste into tributaries of two rivers, including one which flows into the Black River, upstream of my home.
If you’ve never considered what it feels like to know that hog sh*t-laden floodwater is sloshing around in your kitchen or your bedroom, please take a moment to do that now — this is the reality now facing thousands of people across North Carolina. It’s an unacceptable violation, and one that has been forced upon so many of us by decades of terrible policy that have allowed corporations like Smithfield to operate in ways that radically undermine common sense — and basic human decency.
North Carolina has more hogs than people, clustered in a part of the state that is vulnerable to hurricanes. Communities in North Carolina and other states have had their authority to influence the permitting process for factory farms drastically reduced or stripped away entirely. This loss of “local control” means communities often have no say in where new factory farms will be located and are thus unable to stop them from being built within floodplains or in other vulnerable areas.
It's Not An Accident
This is no accident. NC Policy Watch has discussed North Carolina policymakers’ willful neglect of vulnerable communities, now astonishingly evident in the wake of Hurricane Florence. This storm fully exposed southeastern North Carolina’s racial, economic and geographic inequalities. Our most at-risk communities are in the southeast corner of the state -- many in low-lying areas directly in the path of climate change-fueled superstorms. Many are communities of color. Many people live well below the federal poverty line. Nineteen of North Carolina’s 20 poorest counties are in the east, and hundreds of thousands of people in those counties struggle with food insecurity. In addition to these burdens, all deal with disproportionate amounts of pollution — much of it the result of state policies that have allowed factory farms, coal ash impoundments, landfills and nuclear facilities exist in the floodplains of rivers that slowly wind toward the southeastern North Carolina coast.
New research suggests that 50 percent of Hurricane Florence’s rainfall can be attributed to a warming climate — and this in a state where elected officials at all levels of government have steadfastly refused to acknowledge the reality of climate change. The North Carolina General Assembly went so far as to pass a law in 2012 banning the use of new climate science in planning for the impacts of rising sea levels. It’s now clear that we ignore the climate science at our own peril. The people who will pay the price are those who can least afford to.
Poor policy decisions allowed factory farms and coal ash dumps to be built in floodplains, facilitated the marginalization of entire communities, and buried the evidence of the real, immediate threat posed by climate change. Hurricane Florence has exposed these vulnerabilities and shortcomings. How will we respond?
We Can Make Different Decisions To Affect The Next Hurricane's Outcomes
If anything good comes of this disaster, it should be the opportunity to rebuild stronger and smarter — not just our homes and our communities, but also our democracy. We need to hold our elected officials accountable and demand a role for science in policy decisions. We need to get corporate money out of our politics. We need to ban factory farms and take meaningful actions to stop climate change. We need to do these things as if our lives depend on it — because they do.