Just a week prior to the arrival of Hurricane Dorian, longtime Craven County resident Rick Dove finished repairing his dock, which had been washed away last year by Hurricane Florence.
On Wednesday, Dove, a former Neuse Riverkeeper and founding member of the Waterkeeper Alliance, described his yearly hurricane prep ritual: tying down his boats, filling up his gas tank, gathering supplies at Walmart, getting stuck in panic-induced traffic.
“A lot of people are very frightened because Florence really set New Bern back a lot,” said Dove, eighty. One neighbor only just moved back into their home three days ago.
In the fifty years he’s lived on the Neuse River, Dove had never seen anything quite like the wrath of Florence, a monster storm that stalled over parts of North Carolina and dumped catastrophic rainfall and flooded his small riverfront city.
“Only a fool predicts Mother Nature,” he said. “You just never know how bad it’s going to be.”
As the Category 3 storm began to descend on the state Thursday, Governor Cooper urged North Carolinians to seek shelter and stay off the roads.
Hurricanes that travel along the Gulf Stream and brush up against the coast have become more intense and frequent in recent years, worsening with warming ocean temperatures and rising sea levels.
“This is not normal—but it’s a new normal,” Dove said. “Climate change is real. I’m convinced of that.”
As Dorian crept northward along the U.S. coast Thursday morning with sustained winds at 115 mph, the National Hurricane Center predicted a storm surge for the New Bern and Riverbend regions of up to six feet by Thursday night. This could cause catastrophic flooding and contaminate the rivers with animal waste from low-lying hog and poultry farmlands.
New Bern is only three feet above sea level.
As a riverkeeper, Dove has logged over twenty-five hundred hours in the air, photographing and videotaping the region’s hog lagoons from a Cessna 172. He said that just a few days earlier, he spotted some farmers spraying their fields with hog waste in an effort to empty them ahead of the storm. Once tropical storm warnings have been posted, farmers are prohibited by state law from spraying their fields.
Over the past two decades, a majority of hog farmers continued to spray, despite the warnings, for fear that their lagoons would breach—but Dove said that number has been on a steady decline in recent years. Once the fields become inundated with hog waste and saturated by rainwater, it becomes nearly impossible to differentiate floodwater from hog waste, a public health concern that the General Assembly and the hog industry continue to ignore. And when floodwaters begin to recede from lagoons or poultry farms after a storm, animal waste is sucked out of the lagoon and can be carried downstream into the river.
The N.C. Pork Council says that each hog lagoon, which can hold up to six months of animal waste, can sustain twenty-five inches of rainfall without breaching.
It released a statement on Tuesday warning citizens to be wary of misinformation spread by the media, some of which, it says, is “the result of a deliberate campaign by certain activist groups who are running coordinated campaigns meant to attack hog farmers.”
But Dove says that not all lagoons are equal, and it doesn’t make a difference once the floods come. On a flight earlier this week, he observed that some lagoons were emptied while others were near-capacity. He says he’s also documented other thirty-year-old lagoons so full of sludge and solid waste that they fail to function properly.
Tom Butler, a farmer with nearly eight thousand hogs, was able to invest in two covered hog lagoons totaling $320,000 with money he was awarded through a grant. The problem, he says, is the lack of adoption by the industry because of the high price tag.
“We did it here at our farm because we thought it was the right thing to do,” Butler says. “What we need to do is do away with the lagoon system and process waste as we make waste—not store it in our lagoons.”
Dorian’s anticipated heavy rainfall, Dove said, could be the most significant source of pollution and the greatest threat to the state’s low-lying farmlands and rivers. The impacts from a storm surge and powerful wind gusts, meanwhile, could be felt by towns and cities further inland. If sewer and freshwater systems are shut off, drinking water could become contaminated as waste is redirected and flushed down the river.
“If you get sixteen to twenty inches of rain from here to Raleigh, you’ve got a Hurricane Floyd in the making,” he said, referring to the 1999 hurricane that followed a similar path to Dorian.
For Dove, who’s had a lifelong love affair with the Neuse River, the region is home—though he admits that he and the river seem to disagree about whether or not he’s allowed to keep his dock.
“I love the river, and I think the river likes me back,” he said. “If I can pick the place I die, it will be here.”
Contact food and digital editor Andrea Rice at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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