It’s 7:00 AM on Friday and my partner and I are sitting in the dark in our home in Pender County, North Carolina, waiting for Hurricane Florence to blow through. Our entire county was under a mandatory evacuation order, but the shelters were all at capacity and there were people who needed to be there more than we did, so we gave up our spaces. It was the right decision and I don’t regret it, although riding out the storm at home, especially at night, was a little scary. We were grateful for daybreak. We slept head to head in the hallway and talked late into the night about what we would save if the river flooding is worse than predicted.
The Black River, normally a slow-flowing and beautiful blackwater stream, flows less than 40 yards from our home. Predictions vary widely, but we’re expecting between 10 and 40 (yes, 40) inches of rain over the next few days. We anticipate extensive flooding. Hurricane Matthew flooded our home two years ago, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) ultimately declared that to be a 1,000 year flood. Now, just two years later, we’re looking at the potential for another 1,000 year flood. Yet North Carolina lawmakers have ignored the threat, going so far as to pass a bill in 2012 that essentially outlawed decision-making based on new climate science that would show the true extent of the threat of rising sea levels to the state.
Our Mountain of Home Furnishings
Our home is on stilts, and yet we are still likely to see floodwater on the main floor. We moved everything we own up by three feet—our sofa, our beds, our desks are all on sawhorses, on tables, or on our kitchen island. Everything else is piled up on top. We affectionately refer to these piles as “Mount Furniture.”
Contaminated Water Is A Huge Issue
We were able to stream the local news for a while last evening and were shocked to see what was supposed to be lighthearted coverage of two girls playing with a giant unicorn floatie in floodwater. Floodwater is gross, and that’s an understatement. It contains sewage from combined sewer overflows, contamination from industrial facilities, pesticides, herbicides… the list is a mile long. But here in North Carolina, it also contains a lot of hog urine and feces from thousands of factory farms.
Hog and chickens confined in North Carolina's factory farms produce nearly 10 billion gallons of waste each year. The waste produced by the hogs is flushed into open-air lagoons. To keep the lagoons from overflowing, the liquid waste is then sprayed onto nearby fields—often at rates that exceed the soil’s ability to absorb it. The excess then runs off into streams and rivers. Over 160 of these lagoons are directly within the 100-year floodplain. Hundreds more are near it. And this will not be a 100-year flood.
Others have written extensively about how absurd it is that these toxic lagoons are located in the floodplain, and how spraying in the days leading up to the hurricane along with likely inundation of lagoons could lead to an unprecedented amount of factory farm pollution in our water.
What the media hasn’t been covering quite as much is the toll this industry has had on the lives of everyday North Carolinians even before this crisis.
These factory farms are filthy and toxic. Over 500 people living near them recently sued them, in 26 separate lawsuits, for impacts to their health, quality of life, and property values. In the first three of these cases to go to trial the neighbors won resoundingly: their stories of the physical and mental ordeals associated with living near these facilities has resulted in verdicts of $50 million, $25 million, and $473 million—almost half a billion dollars—respectively.
But now, as Hurricane Florence rips through southeastern North Carolina, we’re all hog farm neighbors.
These feelings of uncertainty and vulnerability are constant for people living near these facilities, but now they’re felt by people across our region. The floodwater that will likely pour into the main floor of our home in the next several days may be laden with hog urine and feces and the contaminants they contain—including deadly pathogens like E. coli and Salmonella. We hope it will not reach the elevation of Mount Furniture. But even so, it will soak into our cabinets, our walls, our floors. It will add a huge health risk to the clean-up from an already stressful and devastating event.
And the contamination doesn’t stop here. It will flow downstream through New Hanover County and the city of Wilmington, where it could cause additional flooding in areas that have already been heavily impacted by wind and storm surge damage. And it will then make its way down the Cape Fear River toward the Atlantic Ocean. We all live downstream.
This storm is one in a long line of climate change-fueled superstorms… Maria, Irma, Harvey. It is yet another example of why we need to move off fossil fuels—and also ban factory farms. In addition to their significant greenhouse gas emissions which fuel climate change, factory farms are a nightmare for their neighbors and for communities downstream — something all of southeastern North Carolina now knows.
Naturally, it is difficult for Krissy to write much with limited access to power and internet. She sent us some notes about what she’s seeing in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence now.
“First, I should say that we feel fairly fortunate right now. Our families are safe. We had time to move all of our most important possessions. And we have flood insurance that will help with repairs or rebuilding. Thousands of others are in situations that are far worse, and it’s heartbreaking. We’re staying with my mother in law, so we’re safe. We have a generator and so have some electricity, the ability to run a refrigerator, and we’re able to keep our phones and computers charged.
We’re in Wilmington which is basically cut off from the rest of the state due to floodwater — gas, food and other supplies are running low. I have a friend who volunteers with the Red Cross and she told me yesterday they have been unable to get food supplies in to help. We’ve heard they are considering bringing food in by air now. Power is being restored in a lot of neighborhoods, but there is no internet and cell phone service is very slow and unreliable. There are long, long lines for gas—with people lined up for half a mile or more in some places.
Last night we found a bar that was running off of generators and they had cold-ish beers and some food and it was nice to be with some other folks from the community. We hung out until the curfew—which is now 8pm because of looting.
The flooding is catastrophic, particularly in the counties upstream from Wilmington (including Pender). I have never seen anything like it. There are hundreds of homes that are likely completely destroyed and thousands of others that have been impacted. We have no idea about the status of our house. We spent five hours yesterday afternoon trying to get there but couldn’t even get close enough in the truck to put our boat in the water; the roads are all either flooded or washed out from flooding.
The attached photo is the main road on the way to our house—obviously impassable. Yesterday morning the coast guard airlifted someone off of the hood of the truck (in the far distance of the image above) in the midst of raging floodwater. Every stream crossing and bridge looks like that to varying degrees—significantly undercut if not washed out completely.
We think the Black River is likely already higher than it was in Hurricane Matthew and the river gauge about 40 miles upstream is still going straight up, so we expect water is in our house already but we have no idea how much. It’s not likely to crest till late this week, unfortunately, and then will recede pretty slowly.”
Sadly, One Of Krissy's Predictions Came True
Clearly, the ordeal Krissy and millions of people across the Carolinas are going through is wreaking havoc on their entire way of life. And Krissy’s prediction was right — factory farm waste lagoons and toxic substances from other problematic industries were at risk of contaminating the flood water, and did.
Just in — at least one hog poop lagoon has breached due to flooding from Hurricane Florence pic.twitter.com/qrmafHcA40
— Emily Atkin (@emorwee) September 17, 2018
It would be foolish to allow this to continue happening, when we know more extreme weather like this is on the horizon. Factory farms’ toxicity can’t be neatly contained. It’s time to stand against them entirely.