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Hurricane Florence brings health and safety concerns for North Carolina rivers

In the diedown of the weekend’s heavy rains from Hurricane Florence, all eyes are on the major rivers of North Carolina, expected to continue causing catastrophic flooding over the next few days as the rains flow into the sea.

By 5 a.m. local time on Monday morning, the National Hurricane Center reported that the remnants of Florence were expected to produce “heavy and excessive rainfall over the next couple of days” and that flash flood warnings were in effect across a large swath of land covering southern and western North Carolina, northeast South Carolina, and southwest Virginia.

The Little River, the Cape Fear, the Lumber, the Neuse, the Waccamaw, and the Pee Dee Rivers were forecasted to flood their channels and possibly flood neighboring communities, prompting authorities to order a mandatory evacuation on Saturday of about 7,500 residents within one mile from one stretch of the Cape Fear and Little River. 

Hurricane Florence has caused significant flooding in areas such as Lenoir County, North Carolina. (Source: Flickr, North Carolina National Guard)
Hurricane Florence has caused significant flooding in areas such as Lenoir County, North Carolina. (Source: Flickr, North Carolina National Guard)

Besides the flooding of communities, experts are also concerned about the effects of storm-related pollution of these major rivers.

The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority reported on Friday that the failure of two generators at its water treatment plant caused the discharge of an estimated 5.25 million gallons of partially treated wastewater into the Cape Fear River.

The storm also caused the collapse of a coal ash landfill at a closed power station, causing an estimated 2,000 cubic yards of ash to be displaced into the nearby Sutton Lake. The coal ash may contain toxic heavy metals such as mercury, arsenic, and lead. Duke Energy said that the “ash is non-hazardous, and the company does not believe this incident poses a risk to public health or the environment.” Authorities assured that there would be further investigation and Duke Energy will be conducting water samples.

The ongoing concern for the flooding and overtopping of the state’s several thousand hog lagoons highlights the risk that Florence still poses, days after first making landfall. Such lagoons contain huge volumes of animal waste that may cause a significant pollution risk should they be breached. Previous storms have caused the lagoons to overflow, prompting hog farmers to prepare in advance of Florence, draining their ponds and spraying manure onto their crops as fertilizer. For the first 72 hours of the storm, the lagoons largely held up to Florence’s heavy rains. Governor Roy Cooper said in a media briefing on Sunday, “We are closely monitoring hog lagoons, and we haven’t had any reports of issues.” Despite the initial good news, on Monday Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Michael Regan announced that several lagoon failures had been reported. Included was the breach of a dam at an industrial hog farm in Duplin County and seven reports that lagoons were “going over their tops or being inundated in Jones and Pender counties.”

The flooding and pollution of the state’s major rivers will cause a significant risk to human health and safety until the water recedes and officials have time to test the water quality across the state. As we continue to monitor the aftereffects of Hurricane Florence, we should consider how to minimize risk such that we can be prepared for the next storm.

Sources and Further Readings

Tropical Depression Florence Public Advisory – National Hurricane Center

Floodwaters rise in North Carolina, evacuations begin in Lillington – ABC11

UPDATE: Southside Wastewater Treatment Plant Lost Two Generators During Hurricane Florence. – Cape Fear Public Utility Authority

Coal Ash and Sewage Spill Over as Florence Floods the Carolinas – Bloomberg

Hog Lagoons Stay Contained Amid Pelting Rains, Governor Says – Bloomberg

Florence’s Floods Obscure Damage Inflicted on Carolinas – Bloomberg 

Florence Death Toll Rises To 32 As Rivers Continue To Flood In N.C. And S.C. – NPR