Hurricane Florence storm has caused devastation in the USA, killing over thirty people, most of them in North Carolina. Hundreds of thousands of homes have been stuck without power. There have also been devastating impacts on livestock farms, and for some reason, these have been largely unreported.

Deaths of thousands/ millions of pigs and poultry

Governmental authorities take the evacuation of pets very seriously in disaster zones, because it has been shown in the past that if pets are not helped to escape, many people refuse to leave them behind, so the rate of human mortality increases. The best way to save human lives is to ensure that pets’ lives are also saved. Sadly, this care for the safety of animals does not seem to apply to farm livestock in the same way.

North Carolina is one of the top states in the USA for producing pork and poultry, with an ongoing population of 9 million pigs, in constant rotation between birth and slaughter, as well as an annual output of around 820 million chickens and 34 million turkeys every year.

While pets and humans were evacuated  in the parts of the USA affected by Hurricane Florence (North Carolina in particular), farmers tried to evacuate livestock, but the logistics of doing this effectively were just too much: millions of pigs and birds were left in their sheds, experiencing terrifying deaths by drowning. This will have involved appalling suffering.

The latest accounts suggest that  3.4 million chickens and turkeys, and over 5000 pigs, were killed by Hurricane Florence. In fairness, farmers had done their best to move pigs and poultry to higher land, but the severity of the flooding exceeded expectations.  Even at this late stage, other animals are expected to die because the farms have been isolated by the floods blocking access roads, so new food supplies cannot be shipped in to them. The animals are likely to starve as a result. In other cases, power cuts have meant that ventilation systems have failed, leading to stress, illness and deaths.

Contamination of environment from overflowing pig waste

As well as the livestock deaths, there’s another problem: there are 3,300 pig waste lagoons in North Carolina that have filled to overflowing because of the flood waters. These represent a potential environmental contamination risk because swine feces and urine contain bacteria and pathogens, including Salmonella, E. coli and fecal coliforms. So-called “pig lagoons” are the most common method that farmers use to deal with pig waste. The tanks of waste use microorganisms to  process the waste matter into by-products that can then be used safely as fertilizer. However if the tanks overflow, unprocessed pig waste, mixed with other toxic substances caught up in the flood waters, can expose local people to serious health risks. Even without this flooding damage, there are health and quality of life issues connected to pig farms: a recent research paper found that people who live near pig farms in North Carolina have higher rates of infant mortality, kidney disease, tuberculosis, septicemia, and more hospital admissions than other people. Around 160,000 North Carolinians live less than a kilometer from a pig or poultry farm. Research has also found that the impact disproportionately affects African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans, concluding that the issue is a type of “environmental racism”.

Financial loss to farmers, companies and insurers

While many onlookers are justifiably horrified at the deaths of animals in the floods, those who care for these animals are also likely to suffer significantly in the coming weeks and months: they could be facing financial ruin. Many intensive poultry farms are independently owned businesses who have contracts with a major poultry supplier, Sanderson Farms (company motto: “good honest chicken”). It isn’t clear who will face the most financial pressure: the farmers, the corporations, or the insurance companies. One of those insidious rumours doing the social media rounds (is it fake news?) is that some farmers may have been insured for loss of livestock caused by flooding and that this could have provided a disincentive to move stock by making it more profitable to leave them to die. It is hard to imagine that any human being could be so heartless, but financial pressure can make people behave in uncharacteristic ways.

Lessons for the future

While storms of this type may be an unpredictable force of nature, there are some obvious steps that should be taken to prevent a recurrence of this type of crisis.

  1. Most obviously, industrial-scale livestock factory farms of this type should not be located in areas prone to flooding.
  2. Disaster planning should be carried out more effectively so that animals can be shipped out efficiently in such dire circumstances.
  3. Most profoundly, the spotlight on these intensive livestock enterprises should cause us to pause and ask ourselves: do we really need to eat so much cheap meat? Is this animal suffering really necessary?