There's reports of alligators walking in the streets and venomous snakes slithering in the sludge, but the biggest threat from the Florence floodwaters is largely invisible: chemical and bacterial contamination.
As people start to return to their flood-damaged homes, state health departments have been issuing guidelines for dealing with a variety of threats. On Thursday, for example, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture urged farmers and homeowners to look out for spilled or leaked pesticides and fertilizers, offering citizens advice on how to deal with them.
“Anything that people typically sprayed onto the landscape will get into the floodwater,” said Dr. Michael Mallin, an aquatic ecologist at the University of North Carolina. “Pesticides, herbicides, cleaning materials, and things like fuel will be mixed in there.”
The Department of Health and Human Services is also urging residents to update tetanus vaccines, and avoid contact with floodwaters.
That's because, according to OSHA, the floodwater can contain infectious organisms like E. coli, salmonella, and shigella, hepatitis A, and agents of typhoid, paratyphoid, and tetanus. Pools of standing or stagnant water also make an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes, increasing the risk of encephalitis, West Nile Virus, and other mosquito-borne diseases.
Hurricane Florence bore down on the densest area of hog farming in the U.S. — which also has some of the laxest regulations surrounding the storage of hog waste, including urine, feces, blood, and even dead piglets. The waste is stored in open-air pits where the solids sink to the bottom and the liquid is later sprayed onto surrounding fields, and the flooding released millions of gallons of this untreated waste.
According to the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, 60 hog lagoons, as they're called, have either overflowed, flooded or been damaged, and another 76 are close to capacity. And waste from the 5,700 turkey and chicken farms in North Carolina is also causing concern among public health experts.
“One immediate problem is that some of it could get into well-water systems. When you have these farms in rural areas, neighbors have to use well-water. The fecal count in that water goes way up for the entire period you have extensive floodwaters,” said Dr. Mallin. “God knows how long that is going to be.”
The results can be deadly: After Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in 2017, samples collected by A&M University professor Dr. Terry Gentry showed E. coli levels were 125 times higher than EPA limits, and deaths from bacterial diseases spiked significantly after Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
One breached hog lagoon in Duplin County spilled 2.2 million gallons of untreated swine waste, according to Megan Thorpe, a spokeswoman for the NC DEQ. But based on an independent analysis by the Environmental Working Group, an estimated 7.3 million gallons of swine waste have spilled from at least two completely breached lagoons.
On the bright side, that eclipses by far the amount of partially discharged human sewage that was discharged from the Southside Wastewater Treatment plant near Wilmington during Hurricane Florence — an estimated 5.25 million gallons of sewage that spilled from their wastewater site.
But it isn't just waste that has people concerned — it's also the millions of dead animal carcasses in the water. According to state officials, 5,500 hogs and more than 3 million chickens have died so far.
“A big part of what is going to be concerning from a public health perspective is dead hogs and chickens,” said Vanessa Zboreak, law professor at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. “Usually the farmer is responsible for disposing of them, but at some point there is just too much to handle.”
SUPERFUND SITES AND ASH PITS
Residents are also concerned about runoff from several of the 35 active Superfund sites in North Carolina that were in the path of the hurricane and the 31 coal ash pits in North Carolina that contain contaminants like mercury, cadmium and arsenic.
On Wednesday, EPA Superfund-site assessment teams began preliminary review of some of the sites, classified as such because they pose a severe risk to human and environment health. In total 45 sites have been assessed to contain no threat.
The EPA is “committed to the evaluation and assessment of all NPL sites within the storm’s path, as conditions permit,” the EPA said in a statement Wednesday. But time is a luxury in these situations, and the EPA has been criticized in the past for not responding quickly enough to hurricane-related damage at Superfund sites.
During Hurricane Florence, about 2,000 cubic yards of soil and ash were dislodged, sending stormwater runoff laced with coal ash contaminants into a nearby lake, though it's not clear what impact that will have. At another inactive coal ash waste disposal site owned by Duke near Goldsboro, N.C., 1 million tons of coal ash was submerged and three ponds are washing coal ash into the Neuse River, according to the Waterkeepers Alliance.
“In our past experience with Hurricane Matthew, only a small amount of ash and cenospheres [another byproduct of coal combustion] was displaced with no measurable environmental effects,” said Erin Culbert, a spokesperson for Duke Energy. “We'll learn more as floodwaters recede, and we’re prepared to take steps needed to address it.”
According to Physicians for Social Responsibility, people living near coal mines may have as much as a 1 in 50 chance of getting cancer from drinking arsenic-contaminated water.
But once the floodwaters do recede, residents will face another challenge.
“Besides the pathogens from swine and poultry and human, another big issue will be mold,” Wallin said. ”There is going to be an extreme amount of it. People will have to toss out all kinds of furniture and mattresses and everything that has been submerged in the floodwaters.”
Flooding is expected in North Carolina through Saturday, according to the National Weather Service.
Cover image: In this U.S. Army National Guard handout, A U.S. Air Force Security Forces Airmen assigned to the South Carolina Air National Guard, 169th Fighter Wing, from McEntire Joint National Guard Base, ride in a sheriffs department tactical vehicle to assist law enforcement with evacuation efforts as the Black Creek river begins to crest in Florence, S.C., Sept. 17, 2018 (Photo by U.S. Army National Guard via Getty Images)