Florence Could Be Environmental Apocalypse for Carolinas

Waves crash under a pier in Kill Devil Hills, N.C., Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018, as Hurricane Florence approaches the east coast. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

NORTH CAROLINA (CN) – Heavy rains from Hurricane Florence could cause an environmental disaster in North Carolina, where waste from hog manure pits, coal ash dumps and other industrial sites could wash into homes and threaten drinking water supplies.

The projected path of Florence, now a category 3 storm, shifted southwest on Wednesday, with landfall possible later this week anywhere from Charleston, South Carolina to Wilmington, North Carolina.

But once the hurricane does come ashore, forecasters expect the massive storm to stall and then wobble its way slowly across the Southeast, dumping as much as 3 feet of rain over the region.

In September 1999, Hurricane Floyd came ashore near Cape Fear, North Carolina as a Category 2 storm that dumped about 2 feet of water on a region already soaked days earlier by Hurricane Dennis.

The result was the worst natural disaster in state history, a flood that killed dozens of people and left whole towns underwater, their residents stranded on rooftops.

The bloated carcasses of hundreds of thousands of hogs, chickens and other drowned livestock bobbed in a nose-stinging soup of fecal matter, pesticides, fertilizer and gasoline so toxic that fish flopped helplessly on the surface to escape it. Rescue workers smeared Vick’s Vapo-Rub under their noses to try to numb their senses against the stench.

Florence is forecast to make landfall in the same region as a significantly stronger storm.

Farmers in low-lying areas near the coast are working to head off the flooding that Florence’s  heavy rain will trigger, in effort to prevent a catastrophic quantity of hog waste from seeping into watersheds and neighboring homes.

North Carolina is home to about 9 million hogs, and the state’s booming swine industry draws in about $1 billion annually.

For industrial farms, it is standard practice to store hog waste in open-air ponds that are sometimes the size of a football field. They are known as lagoons or “pink lagoons,” because of their bacteria-induced bright pink color.

Rainfall during Hurricane Floyd in 1999 caused massive fish kills and algal blooms in several watersheds when dozens of hog farms and lagoons In North Carolina flooded, and the retaining walls in about six lagoons crumbled under pressure. Thousands of livestock were killed, contributing to the significant level of water pollution.

Now, a larger storm is on its way and farmers are scrambling to drain the ponds— pumping the waste onto nearby fields as fertilizer— in order to make way for rainfall. Farmers in low-lying plains are also moving livestock onto higher ground.

During his declaration of a state of emergency in North Carolina, Governor Roy Cooper directed the Department of Public Safety to suspend weighing vehicles used to transport livestock.

The EPA is also currently monitoring about nine at-risk superfund sites in the eastern part of the state.

Meanwhile, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency for the entire state on Wednesday as the latest projections showed Hurricane Florence taking a potential left-turn toward the northern half of the state.

The governor’s order came shortly after the latest National Hurricane Center forecast showed the storm making landfall further south than originally thought, and then possibly churning over Georgia as it runs out of steam.

Earlier Wednesday, President Donald Trump warned Georgians to “be ready, be prepared” for the Category 4 storm as it neared the coast.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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