3.4 Million Chickens, 5,500 Hogs Killed in Florence's Flooding

3.4 Million Chickens, 5,500 Hogs Killed in Florence’s Flooding

Eric Phelps steered a small, battery-powered pontoon boat over the tops of cornstalks and into the eastern North Carolina town of Wallace on Thursday afternoon. The smell of floodwater under a hot sun – a mix of oil, manure and mold – was overwhelming.

Gliding across the surface, Phelps saw something even more unsettling: dead chickens, hundreds of them, lodged against people’s fences, stuck in the tops of bushes, lapping up against front porch steps.

They are among the 3.4 million chickens confirmed killed in the floods that followed Hurricane Florence. In addition, about 5,500 hogs died, according to the Department of Agriculture, and some of the massive lagoons that hold their excrement are damaged and discharging a fecal soup.

“Heartbreaking,” said Phelps, a manager for Brother Wolf Animal Rescue in western North Carolina, who had been hoping to rescue cats and dogs left behind before the storm. “You drive along the interstate and you don’t see any water and you think, “Oh, it’s fine.” But you turn off and you drive two miles close to the Cape Fear river and everything on the riverbank for miles around is covered by water. Houses, hog farms, fire stations, whatever.”

Duplin county is part of a region that anchors America’s industrial farming industry. Here, livestock are considered inventory, raised for a nation that has tripled its poultry consumption over the past two generations and boosted pork consumption to its highest level since the 1970s. North Carolina has 9 million hogs and 830 million chickens. It ranks second among US states in pounds of meat chicken produced each year, and second in number of hogs. Most of the farms contract with massive agribusinesses, such as Smithfield Foods and Sanderson Farms.

The extent of the damage from Florence, which dropped 8 trillion gallons of water on the state, is unknown. The state department of environmental quality reported Thursday that at least six swine lagoons have suffered structural damage, and 30 have reported discharges. At least three of those with structural damage have been breached – the worst-case scenario, in which walls collapse. One released 2.2 million gallons in Duplin county, a department spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal.

Duke Energy confirmed Friday that a dam breached at one of its plants, alerting residents that coal ash may be flowing into the Cape Fear river.

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Yet the North Carolina Pork Council argues that activists overstate damage in order to cause alarm. “While we are dismayed by the release of some liquids from some lagoons, we also understand that what has been released from the farms is the result of a once-in-a-lifetime storm and that the contents are highly diluted with rainwater,” the council stated on its website.

The hog industry has been on the defensive in recent years, facing multiple lawsuits from residents in nearby towns who’ve found feces on their property and the smell on their clothes. Neighbors of farms owned by Murphy-Brown LLC, the largest hog producer in the world and a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, have brought 26 nuisance lawsuits. Juries reached guilty verdicts in three of those cases so far, awarding $548m in damages to 18 plaintiffs. Because of the state’s cap on punitive damages, the awards have been reduced to about $97.6m total.

Following a 1999 hurricane that dropped 24 inches of rain, investigations into the factory farm industry found lagoons located in flood-prone areas, poor working conditions, and waste-removal practices that hadn’t been updated in decades. The state responded by starting a program to buy hog farms in flood zones and relocate them. It is practically the only course of action that the government, activists, and the pork council all agree on, and it appears to have worked. Floyd dropped far less rain than Florence, but it killed four times the number of hogs: 21,000.

Most news reports during the storm focused on the devastation in the coastal towns of Wilmington and New Bern, but the flat area inland has remained largely unreachable by car. Experts remain deeply concerned because of rivers that are higher than ever this week.

The Cape Fear, for instance, crested at a record 61 feet near the inland city of Fayetteville on Wednesday. That water still had 90 or so miles to travel before reaching the Atlantic and residents were ordered to evacuate Thursday night,eight days after Florence’s tropical force winds came ashore.

Florence’s timing could hardly be worse. It is the height of harvest season – with tobacco, peanuts, cotton, and sweet potatoes still in the ground – and there’s less than a month before the 10-day state fair celebration.

From the driver’s seat of his boat on Thursday in Wallace, Phelps and his team couldn’t believe the number of animal carcasses they were seeing.

He has rescued a few dogs and cats this week, and found dead ones, too. On Thursday, he passed cows standing on a front porch. Phelps’ thoughts have turned to the cleanup. Residents will return to destroyed homes, and many will discover dead chickens on their lawns and in sheds, legs askew, their faces down in the oily water.

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