The water started rising just before dark. The chickens couldn't see it, not at first, but as the storm-driven tide from the swollen mouth of the Pocomoke River started to invade their barns, the birds knew it was going to be bad.
"Have you ever heard 25,000 chickens scream?" said Elizabeth Butler, who along with her husband, Denny, owns the Eastern Shore farm that suffered as much damage as any property from Hurricane Floyd. "Chickens are not used to getting their feet wet, so of course they were terrified."
A five-foot-high wall of water rushed over the banks of the Pocomoke here Thursday night, claiming thousands of casualties at the Butlers' poultry operation. Two barns, containing 25,000 nearly full-grown chickens, were completely swamped, resulting in the death of at least half of them and a nearly indescribable mess.
As the Butlers surveyed the scene this afternoon, they saw two 50-yard-long barns, each filled with about a foot of waterlogged chicken manure. Inside, the dead chickens lay on their backs with their feet in the air. The catatonic survivors barely moved, their white feathers streaked a muddy brown.
"It came just like a wave," said Elizabeth Butler. "It wasn't here one minute, and then all of a sudden it was. There's nothing we could do except stand there and watch them. And it wasn't a pretty sight."
There are scores of chicken farms that raise millions of birds here in Somerset County, on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay. And while many fields sustained a real soaking from Floyd, only the Butlers reported such serious losses.
The chickens were 7 weeks old and weighed about four pounds each. They were scheduled to go to slaughter next week, which means the losses in financial terms will be steep, though the Butlers declined to estimate how much they might lose.
Still, it could have been worse. The Butlers have 110,000 chickens, but the flood did not reach their other barns.
A lifelong farmer, Denny Butler said he has been faced with plenty of unpleasant situations. Now he must figure out how to dispose of more than 12,500 dead chickens and untold tons of soggy manure.
"We're probably going to try and take the dead and put them in with the manure and compost all of it," he said. "We'll see."