REGIONALREPORT EasternDeluge brings farmers more rain but less pain
In the five fall days that dying Tropical Storm Nicole dumped 22 inches of rain on parts of Eastern North Carolina, reporters grilled economists about damage to tourism and beaches. Another fact was largely over- looked when the waters departed: 11 years after Hurricane Floyd — a lesser, 19-inch deluge — the Coastal Plain’s $3.6 billion-a-year animal-farm industry passed its first big test since the 1999 storm dealt what some experts say was the worst blow to Tar Heel agriculture since the Civil War.
Floyd’s heavy rains overflowed and overpowered animal-waste lagoons, dumping more than 250 million gallons from them into nearby waterways. About 30,000 hogs, 700,000 turkeys and 2.4 million chickens drowned. The N.C. Rural Economic Development Center estimates that agricultural damage, including damage to crops, livestock, barns and equipment, totaled $6 billion. This year, though Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler says damage assessments haven’t been completed, it will be only a fraction of that.
Officials are relieved — “We dodged a bullet,” Troxler says — but temper their optimism. A big reason for the lesser damage was plain good luck. Unlike Hurricane Floyd, which came 10 days after a drenching by Hurricane Dennis, Nicole arrived at the end of a dry summer. “Farmers learned from Floyd,” says Keith Larick, supervisor of the N.C. Division of Water Quality’s animal-feeding unit. They typically empty waste-holding ponds by spraying contents on open fields. “They were able to spray down their lagoons before we got all the rainfall this time. With Hurricane Floyd, they went into the storms with the lagoons full.” It worked for a storm like Nicole, but there’s no guarantee it will if farmers are hit with another one-two punch of hurricanes.
And though operators are doing a better job of managing hog lagoons, the technology remains essentially the same as in the days of Floyd. If climate scientists’ predictions of more volatile storms are correct, that technology could be troublesome.