The ruinous 1999 hurricane season is forcing North Carolina officials to reevaluate the tremendous coastal growth and agricultural development in eastern North Carolina over the past decade, touching everything from how to save the rapidly eroding beaches to what to do about livestock waste.
Damage to the environment here has been extensive, especially after the flooding triggered by Hurricane Floyd in September: Drinking water has been contaminated, including an estimated 800 private wells in Duplin County alone. Shrinking beaches at Oak Island and North Topsail Beach lost more ground. The Pamlico Sound has been so overwhelmed with extra nutrients and toxins that some scientists fear an oxygen-deprived dead zone will develop, stifling fish that come from Long Island and Florida to lay eggs there.
And the already controversial issue of hog lagoons, giant open pools brimming with treated manure, has leapt to the forefront again, as some of the waste escaped into the roiling waters of the flood.
The human dimensions of the flood--and three hurricanes since late August--have been comparatively easy to assess--50 people dead and nearly 40,000 homes damaged. The toll on the environment, however, is an ongoing calculation that, in the case of the impact on fish, may take months to determine fully. But environmentalists and state and local officials agree that given the likelihood of future storms, the old way of doing things can no longer suffice.
"Hurricane Floyd really exposed the vulnerability of the coastal plain in North Carolina in such a dramatic way, it is a wake-up call," said Dan Whittle, spokesman for the North Carolina Environmental Defense Fund. "This is an opportunity to do things differently."
In recent years, this once-sleepy region east of Interstate 95 has been subject to great change. As tobacco farming declined, swine production became a booming business; during the 1990s, the hog population here has more than tripled from 2.5 million to 10 million, making the state the nation's second-leading producer of pork. Small independent hog farms--70,000 of them at one time--have given way to 2,400 massive industrial-style operations that depend on about 4,000 of the lagoons to handle waste.
The growth was so rapid that regulations lagged. Complaints about the odor and possible harm to surrounding property values and tourism were vociferous, and in 1997, the state placed a moratorium on new hog farms. Alternative ways to deal with the huge amounts of waste--about four times that of humans--were studied, and Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. (D) proposed a plan to phase out the lagoons over 10 years. But little of that has happened yet.
Meanwhile, on the coast, as places like Florida became overcrowded, more and more people sought out year-round or vacation homes here, building in prime--but vulnerable--spots right along the beaches. Residents were lulled by the relatively mild hurricane seasons here that spanned more than three decades until the mid-1990s. Now, although the beaches were inevitably shrinking all along as part of the natural process, the pace has escalated dramatically.
"With Hurricane Dennis [earlier in the season], the way it moved up the coast, pretty much the entire beach of the state is slipping away," said Todd Miller of the North Carolina Coastal Federation. "You can pretty much go anywhere on the coast and see what is happening. . . . We have thousands of structures in danger of falling into the sea, or they will be shortly."
Hurricane Floyd generated what is described as a 500-year flood. In many places, as much as 20 inches of rain fell on ground already saturated by Dennis. The Tar and Neuse rivers, feeding into the delicate sounds that serve as nurseries for many types of fish and then on into the Atlantic Ocean, spilled out of their banks.
Hog lagoons were flooded, wastewater treatment plants were breeched, more than 2 million chickens, turkeys and hogs drowned, and the scene was set for an environmental mess never encountered before in the state. Everything in the flood's path was swept into this witches' brew--chemicals, gasoline, fertilizers, dead animals, human and livestock wastes--and headed downstream.
"I think the jury is still out in terms of what the overall environmental impact is going to be," said Lisa Schell, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources. "There have been a whole lot of people who have raised warning signs."
The magnitude of what has happened is obvious in Duplin County, the center of the state's swine production, where 44,000 people coexist with 3 million hogs.
Ronnie Kennedy, the county's director of environmental health, said the wells he has sampled indicate that the presence of coliform bacteria from feces is about three times the average in the rest of flooded eastern North Carolina. Although drinking water with even a small amount of feces can produce gastrointestinal ailments, there have been no reports of illness, he said. Residents affected are advised to drink bottled water until their wells can be decontaminated or even redrilled.
Kennedy said several municipal wastewater treatment facilities also were flooded.
"This particular situation is a 500-year event, and based on that, we're not pointing fingers at a lot of blame," he said. "What is going to come from this, I think, is that there will be more emphasis on regulations and getting these operations out of the flood plain."
Indeed, the state is working on such a plan that would be the most extensive and costliest in North Carolina history, said Tad Boggs, Hunt's press secretary. Although the details are still being worked out, about $75 million has been secured from the Federal Emergency Management Agency already to move just two wastewater treatment facilities out of the flood plain. On Thursday, Hunt was in Washington, requesting $1.9 billion in emergency funds from the federal government, with requests for "a billion or two more" in the pipeline for next year, Boggs said.
Hunt said he wants the state to "represent a new model" for recovery from such a disaster.
"We're working every day to identify the extent of the damage, but more importantly, we intend to capitalize on every opportunity to rebuild eastern North Carolina using environmentally sound practices," Hunt said.
These measures may end up helping to protect the Pamlico Sound from future disasters. For now, scientists are hoping that natural dilution will lessen the dangers to fish there, particularly the shellfish; there are no public advisories out against eating seafood.
But scientists also fear that the oxygen levels will fall too low to support life. Estimates are that 50 percent of the fish on the East Coast are spawned there.
"We won't know the answers for a while," said Schell. "You can't take a sound's temperature and see what is going on. All we can do is keep monitoring the water quality."
How to restore the dwindling beaches is another complex--and costly--problem and one that, given the human emergencies left by the storm season, may not be addressed soon. Bill Cleary, a professor of geology at the Center for Marine Science Research at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, estimates that at least 60 miles of beaches are in dire need of sand restoration--a project that could cost more than $60 million.
"These problems were set in motion years ago by other storms, but this year was the knockout punch," Cleary said.
At Long Beach in Brunswick County, he said, "houses are lying bare. There are no dunes. They are sitting there with no protection whatsoever. The water line runs basically up to the road." He fears that within five to 10 years, North Topsail Beach will be so eroded, it will have to be abandoned.
"The eventual thing that is going to happen," he said, "is that people will have to move back from the beach. Sooner or later, there are going to have to be some development changes along the coastline."
Although the problems are myriad, environmentalists hope that the chaos of the 1999 hurricane season will bring more regulations and a better thought-out approach to development and flood controls.
"We generally deal with problems when we're reacting to crisis, and that's where we are now," Miller said. "There has been a definite pattern, in the aftermath of a hurricane, where the programs kick in, the money flows in, and everything is usually put back where it was before. That would be the tragedy if that happens again."
CAPTION: Hogs struggle for life as waters from the Neuse River envelop a barn near Trenton, N.C. Flood waters have spread livestock carcasses and waste, raising fears of long-term impact.
CAPTION: Dennis Lucas climbs a stairway that used to access North Topsail Beach. But hurricanes have so eroded the beach that some scientists fear it will have to be abandoned within 10 years.