More than 9 million hogs and a sizable poultry industry could be at risk in North Carolina if Hurricane Florence dumps a foot or two of rainfall in the eastern part of the state — as some meteorologists are forecasting — where a large number of industrial farms are concentrated.
Two years ago, Hurricane Matthew caused widespread damage and destruction to the Carolinas after making landfall in South Carolina. Up to 2 million chickens and turkeys and 5,000 hogs in North Carolina drowned in the 2016 storm.
Hurricane Floyd was far more devastating as it dumped 24 inches of rain on the eastern part of North Carolina. Millions of farm animals, including about 100,000 pigs and hogs, died in North Carolina as a result of Floyd’s heavy rains.
Hurricane Matthew caused 14 pig and hog waste ponds to flood in 2016, compared to a 55 waste ponds that flooded during Hurricane Floyd in 1999. Floodwaters caused by Floyd sent 120 million gallons of hog waste into the Tar, Neuse, Roanoke, Pamlico, New, and Cape Fear rivers. The waste from the farms leached into the local water supply for several months, from October 1999 until the following spring.
Along the Gulf Coast, the 54 counties in Texas that were declared a disaster area after Hurricane Harvey struck the state in August 2017 are home to more than 1.2 million cows, about 27 percent of the state’s cattle, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But the number of dead cattle from Hurricane Harvey was projected to be far below the 5,000 cattle who died when Hurricane Ike slammed into the state in 2008.
Meteorologists are predicting Florence, a Category 2 hurricane, will make landfall north of Wilmington, North Carolina early Friday, and then crawl through the state and elsewhere in the Southeast into early next week.
Over the past week, in the lead-up to Florence making landfall, public health officials have warned that flooding from the storm in the state’s largest pig- and hog-producing counties could cause toxic debris from animal waste storage ponds to contaminate rivers and become a public health emergency. Less attention has been paid to the animals themselves.
Unlike companion animals, which by law must be included in government evacuation plans during natural disasters, farm animals are afforded no legal protection.
The farm animals live short lives, except for the breeding sows that get impregnated every four months. The sows live about four years in 2-foot-wide cages that don’t allow them to turn around. The hogs that are raised for meat typically live about four months, which is the length of time that allows them to reach market weight. Broiler chickens — the chickens raised for meat — reach market weight in about 45 days.
“It’s hard to think of a worse life than how chickens, pigs, turkeys, and other farmed animals are treated on factory farms,” Kenny Torrella, communications director at Mercy for Animals, told ThinkProgress. “Either way, whether they live out the rest of the short lives inside these factory farms, or if they drown to death inside their cages or inside the factory farms, they suffer horribly.”
In past hurricanes in North Carolina, millions of farm animals were left behind and drowned to death. “That’s because factory farmers view and treat these animals like they are mere meat-producing machines,” Torrella said. “The truth is that chickens, pigs, and turkeys are just as worthy of protection as the cats and dogs that we know and love and share our homes with.”
The specific path Florence will take remains uncertain. The slow-moving storm could turn south and spare eastern North Carolina from the catastrophic amounts of rainfall that devastated the state during Hurricane Floyd in 1999. The faster-moving Floyd dumped 24 inches of rain on large areas of eastern North Carolina.
Steven Troxler, commissioner of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, wrote in a March 2014 letter to the Waterkeeper Alliance that Hurricane Floyd “was a once-in-a-lifetime event, with all mortality generated at one distinct point in time, exceeding the capacity of all of the state’s emergency management capabilities.”
Floyd resulted in the “death of significant numbers of large animals of many species,” Troxler wrote. In the storm’s aftermath, “swine disposal was complicated by the fact that much of the mortality involved large sows and pigs on feed” as opposed to much smaller piglets.
Industrialization and concentration has changed animal agriculture in North Carolina over the past 30 years. The number of animals slaughtered for food has increased while the number of farms has decreased.
In the mid-1980s there were about 2.6 million hogs housed in 15,000 hog farms in North Carolina. The hog population had ballooned to almost 9 million in 2018, concentrated in about 2,300 farms. The state ranks second to Iowa in hog production.
Pig and hog farmers across eastern North Carolina are making final preparations for the arrival of Florence. Farmers have taken precautions to protect animals, manage waste ponds, and prepare for power outages that are anticipated from the hurricane, according to the North Carolina Pork Council, the main trade association for the state’s pig and hog farmers.
Farmers are shifting animals to higher ground and are working to move animals out of barns in known flood-prone areas, sending them to other farms to prevent deaths. They are also securing generators and fuel supplies in case of extended power outages.
Poultry is the top agricultural industry in North Carolina. The state ranks third in the nation in chicken production and second in turkey production. Poultry production in the state has increased from 60 million to 148 million birds over the past 20 years.
“Lessons were learned from Matthew a couple years back and we’ve had a lot more time this go-round to prepare for Florence,” Bob Ford, executive director of the North Carolina Poultry Federation, said Thursday in an email to ThinkProgress. “I think we’re in better shape and prepared than back during Matthew.”
The state’s poultry industry has been busy over the past week preparing for the impacts of Hurricane Florence. Poultry farms have topped off feed bins and made sure farms have working generators with enough fuel in case the power goes out, according to Ford.
“The welfare of the birds is most important and some have been relocated to other farms and higher ground,” he said. “It’s a slow moving storm so we’re expecting coastal flooding, but our farms are located more inland and should be able to withstand the rain and wind bands associated with Florence.”