In a merciless path of destruction, Hurricane Florence killed 49, trapped hundreds, and made parts of North and South Carolina impassable with historic flooding. Numbers are still being tallied, but the North Carolina Department of Public Safety has estimated that 5,214 people and almost 600 animals were rescued from flooded areas. In addition to the usual challenges that can be expected with floodwaters, there is a potential problem for human health and public safety that involves one of the North Carolina’s key industries: hog farming.

Photo courtesy of NC Pork Council: Hurricane Florence 2018. Duplin County breech can be seen on the upper right side of the lagoon.

According to the North Carolina Pork Council, North Carolina is home to 2,100 hog farms and close to 8.9 million hogs. It is one of the nation’s largest livestock producers. Hog lagoons are human-made, open-air pits that store the animal waste that is produced on the farms. The waste is stored and then eventually applied to nearby fields as fertilizer for crops. Though it is rare for lagoons to overflow, the aftermath of Florence has led to at least 27 lagoon overtops throughout the state. In addition, 9 have been inundated by nearby bodies of water, 5 have suffered structural damage, and 56 are close to the brim and could overflow with heavy rains. One lagoon on a small farm in Duplin County (50 miles east from Wilmington, NC – where Florence made historical landfall) had been completely breached but according to an inspection, the solids remained inside of the pit. There are reports that at least two other farms have lost liquid waste to breach as well.

There are rules in place that should have helped to at least prevent some of the hog lagoon issues following Hurricane Florence. According to the North Carolina Pork Council, farms are required to keep the lagoons at a minimum of 19 inches of space before overtop in anticipation of heavy rains. Further prevention methods include ensuring that the lagoons are built on the highest points on the farm and utilizing lagoon covers as an attempt to prevent leakage during heavy rains. Despite these standards, it is often reported that the industry regularly breaks the rules and that these guidelines are not sufficient enough anyway to prevent overflow in case of major flooding. There are several accusations that claim that North Carolina has been lenient on farmers to keep the industry growing. Furthermore, inspections have decreased as the state cannot hire enough inspectors to visit the large number of farms. These issues leaves hog farm lagoons at an increased risk for structure damage, breach, and inundation.Lagoon structure damage, breach, and inundation can be dangerous because waste pits can contain bacteria and pathogens like E. coli and salmonella. According to H. Kim Lyerly, a Duke University professor of pathology and immunology, “contaminants from hog waste, mixed with other pollutants swept up by flood waters, can potentially expose vulnerable people to health problems. When you have a flood, it’s a giant exposure of all the contents in the ground.” Exposure to feces and urine can cause kidney problems, vomiting, fatigue, stomach problems, shortness of breath, and skin problems. Leptospirosis, norovirus, cholera, typhoid, and salmonella are all risks as the flood water and contents of the lagoons spread.

In addition to the usual concerns regarding exposure to animal waste, there are some concerns over the possibility of the bacteria within the lagoons being antibiotic resistant because the farming industry uses antibiotics to aid in animal growth. According to the CDC, antibiotic resistance is dangerous because it can cause illnesses that were once easily treatable with antibiotics to become untreatable, leading to dangerous infections. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are often more difficult to kill and more expensive to treat. In some cases, the antibiotic-resistant infections can lead to serious disability or even death. Cases of methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) have been previously found in North Carolina residents living near industrial hog farms. Because of the risk, local hospitals have prepared extensively for the aftermath of the hurricane.

This is the first post in VIGILINT’s series covering the aftermath of Hurricane Florence. If you or your traveling companion wind up in a medical emergency situation in North Carolina, South Carolina, or anywhere else in the world, VIGILINT offers a comprehensive Global MedAssist Program (GMAP) including medical evacuation to your hospital of choice, access to our 24/7 Medical Operations Center, and our board-certified Emergency Medicine Physician team. Contact VIGILINT for more information: 1 (919) 914-0900.