Home Contents Links Masthead Search Calendar Advertise


Flood: An Unnatural Disaster
By Fetzer Mills Jr.

Flood art
Doug Rader was silent as he viewed the flood-ruined village of Speed for the first time since the noxious diluvial waters of Hurricane Floyd had submerged the town two months earlier. Rader, a bespectacled man with an easygoing manner and the analytical mind of a scientist is an amateur American-Indian archaeologist and a biologist with the Environmental Defense Fund. He's spent a good deal of time at Speed picking up arrowheads, tools and potshards left behind by several Native American groups who'd inhabited the site from prehistoric times.

    Looking at the abandoned, skeletal looking homes coated with a toxic muck he said in a low voice as if to himself, "This place has been inhabited continuously for 10,000 years and now we have so altered the natural landscape as to finally render it uninhabitable."

    The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had built a dike around the town to protect it from flooding by Deep Creek in the 1980s. Deep Creek was channelized, straightened and deepened, at Speed.

    To the north of Speed, outside the dike, was Knight Swamp. Knight Swamp had been drained and filled. All that remains of it is a deep drainage ditch.

    At the northwest corner of Speed, about 20 yards from the spot the Knight Swamp drainage ditch enters Deep Creek, is a bridge. The elevated roadbed blocking Deep Creek's floodplain created a road dam. The volume of water pouring through the Knight Swamp drainage ditch into Deep Creek, combined with the increased velocity of the creek due to channelization and its vastly narrowed flood plain, caused the dike to blow out at the bridge diverting the water's flow into Speed.

    Dr. Stanley Riggs, a marine geologist at East Carolina University and I also discovered several small creeks flowing from inside Speed into the dike. There was no outlet under or through the dike so it acted as a dam.

    The dike also captured water flowing toward Deep Creek from inside Speed during the heavy rainfall. Rather than keeping water out, the dike acted as a dam and created Speed Lake.

    Two months prior to that day in Speed, a week after Hurricane Floyd struck, I got my first glimpse of a similar scene of desolation in Duplin County. On the Highway 41 corridor between Chinquapin and Wallace, not a house or farm was left untouched by the floods. Driving along that road was like entering some sort of unspeakable netherworld. An indescribably evil stench hung in the air, like nothing I've ever smelled before. It was the odor of decomposing animal carcasses, rotting crops, chemicals, raw human sewage and animal wastes, as if some gargantuan, nightmarish creature had visited there and defecated.

    Except for the smell, at first glance things looked normal. The houses were all still standing but with a closer look I saw that they had all been abandoned. Their doors and windows stood open, their insides stripped of furniture, window dressings, carpets and drywall. Most were stripped down to the studs. They looked like great gaping skulls.

    And it was quiet, deathly quiet. No dogs barking or children playing, no laughter or livestock, just quiet, except for the occasional hum of a car engine on the road.

    I didn't even hear the sounds of birds, but in more than one place buzzards circled overhead.

    Stacked in front of many houses were huge piles of furniture, bedding, clothes, carpet, pictures and other household items waiting to be hauled to the dump. Behind many houses plumes of dark black smoke billowed as the owners burned their possessions. The floodwaters were so contaminated that anything tainted by them was rendered unsalvageable.

    The few people that I saw trying to clean up their houses went about their tasks silently and mechanically, moving like zombies.

    I was numbed by what I saw. Grief-stricken for a place I'd never been before and people I didn't know. I interviewed one family, the Grays, in Chinquapin. They considered themselves lucky because they only got ten inches of water in some rooms, twenty-two inches in others. When I got to the hardest hit areas, I couldn't bring myself to talk to anyone else for fear I'd start crying.

    When I returned to Duplin County two months after the flood, the clean-up was far from finished. Dawn Cavenaugh from the Northeast community said, "On the road to Chinquapin a while ago I saw a woman carrying a load of clothes out to the road and then she stopped and she just started spinning in circles. That's how we all feel, spinning in circles and we don't know where to go."

    Dawn and her husband Sam lost their home of 23 years and their family restaurant to the flood. They were living in a tiny camper trailer

It's Not the First Time

    What happened in Speed and Duplin County occurred throughout Eastern North Carolina as a flood of near Biblical proportions devastated much of the state's coastal plain. Coffins floated out of the ground, hundreds of thousands of animals drowned, tens of thousands of people were left homeless and 48 people died. State officials and the local insisted repeatedly that this was a "500-year flood."

    In some areas it's true that the flood reached into the 500-year flood plain, but the rains from Hurricanes Floyd and Dennis (which hit two weeks before Floyd) was not a 500-year rainfall event, not even close.

    In 1955, three intensely wet hurricanes, Connie, Diane and Ione had hit North Carolina in less than six weeks, from Aug.12 to Sept. 19. Ione, the last, had been the worst, dropping 16 inches of rain across Eastern North Carolina in 30 hours. The cooperative field station in Maysville in Jones County recorded 48.90 inches of rainfall between Aug.11 and Sept. 20, 1955. One third of that total was from Ione.

    Until 1999, the flooding from Hurricane Ione was without recorded precedent. The amount of rainfall from those three hurricanes is still without precedent. 1955 was a wet year so the ground was already saturated when the three hurricanes swept through.

    In 1955, more rain was dropped on Eastern North Carolina in a 45-day period (48.90 inches) than the average rainfall for the entire year for the region in 1999.

    North Carolina was in a drought so severe through August in 1999 that it was declared a federal disaster area. The total average rainfall for the year was 41.39 inches at 7:00 a.m. on Sept. 27.

    Five people died as a result of the flooding in 1955. Forty-eight people died from the flooding in 1999.

    So, why was the flooding so much worse in 1999 than in 1955? There's not a simple answer, but several factors help account for it. The first is the loss of the state's wetlands. Since North Carolina began draining its estimated 7.5 million acres of wetlands in the 1700s about half (3.2 million acres) of them have been lost. One-third of the loss occurred between the mid-1970s and the mid-1980s.

    According to Derb Carter, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill and one of the state's leading experts on wetlands, "During that period of time there was a net loss of 1.2 million acres, about 100,000 acres drained and converted to other uses a year. The activities that have been primarily responsible for drainage and conversion of wetlands to other uses are forestry activities to establish pine plantations. That accounts for 53 percent of the historic wetland loss and it's the major cause of wetland loss to drainage. Agriculture activities account for 42 percent and the remaining 5 percent are from urban residential and commercial development."

    The wetlands have several important functions according to Carter. The first and most directly related to the flooding is the ability to absorb huge amounts of water. There are two main types of wetlands. "Wet" wetlands, swamps and marshes and "dry" wetlands, also called marginal lands.

    In times of heavy rainfall the water levels in swamps and marshes can rise and be slowly dispersed over a large area of uninhabited land, preventing massive amounts of water from rapidly moving off the land and into rivers and streams already swollen by the rainfall. The dry wetlands, because they are dry, can absorb large amounts of water, just causing the water table to rise.

    Carter says that these dry wetlands are" even more susceptible to being drained. North Carolina has a lot of areas they call seasonal wetlands because at certain times of the year, primarily winter and spring, they are very wet. The water table rises to the surface during that part of the year. During other times of the year, when the plants are pumping the water out of the ground through transpiration and evaporation the water table actually decreases so that they dry out to some extent.

    "They are seasonally flooded or saturated type wetland areas. When these areas are drained and ditched it prevents the water table from rising back and water is rapidly transferred off site, instead of being held within the wetland areas."

    Carter added that the steadily increasing urbanization in North Carolina, particularly in the Raleigh area, contributed to the flooding in the Neuse River. Rain falls onto impervious surfaces like rooftops and asphalt and runs off rapidly into the drainage of the Neuse River Basin.

A Story of Hogs

    I live in Ripley, Tenn., a small town near the Mississippi River, just north of Memphis but I grew up and lived in North Carolina until about six years ago. I got the first inkling that something might be really wrong in North Carolina while reading flood coverage in the Memphis Commercial-Appeal. I saw several references to 100,000 dead hogs and repeated claims that this was a "500-year flood." I called a source in state government in North Carolina and asked him if the figure of 100,000 dead hogs seemed a bit low.

    He answered, "Well, there are more hogs than there are people in North Carolina and most of those hogs are in the areas hardest hit by the floods. Do the math."

    I called the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and a spokesperson told me there were 31,000 dead hogs. I pressed her on the figure and she said that was the number of confirmed dead, but that they wouldn't have a full count until the floodwaters receded. The Natural Resources Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the same time was giving out a figure of 500,000 dead hogs.

    North Carolina is called Hurricane Alley for good reason. I grew up hearing tales of Hurricane Hazel and the monster hurricanes that hit the state in the 1950s and early 1960s. I knew that, as hurricanes go, Dennis and Floyd were relatively small.

    I pitched my editor at Salon with these two bits of information and she said to do it. Two days later I was in North Carolina.

    What I found was not pretty. The Neuse River flooded out of its banks, cutting off parts of U.S. Highway 70, flooding homes and businesses. The Kinston wastewater treatment plant was completely submerged by the floodwaters and a number of other wastewater treatment plants discharging into the Neuse and its tributaries flooded as well. All told, 24 human wastewater facilities flooded.

    But the spills from wastewater plants don't begin to tell the story. Forty-seven hog lagoons flooded and five were breached. Household chemical products, chemicals and petroleum products from flooded automobiles, both operational and in junkyards; pesticides and fuel oil all spilled into the floodwaters creating what Don Reuter, a spokesman for the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources called a "witch's brew." In essence, Eastern North Carolina became the world's largest cesspool.

A Tale of Two Towns

    On the banks of the Tar River the towns of Tarboro and Princeville were hard hit by the flooding. Historic Princeville, the first black township in the country founded in 1866 as Freedom Hill, was completely wiped out despite a dike built in the 1970s to protect it from flooding. Houses and trailers floated off their foundations. Every building in Princeville was coated with a poisonous, polluted slime as if a colossal venomous slug from a Japanese sci-fi film had attacked the town.

    Princeville, like Speed, had a dike around it built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The dike around Princeville was C-shaped. When Riggs and I walked the dike at Princeville, he was able to determine that the water inside Princeville was almost to the top of the dike before the river overflowed it.

    We found what Riggs called "Gilbert" deltas: places where the river scoured across the top of the dike carrying sand from the dike, fanning out from the dike's crown and depositing in delta-like formations. The tops of the deltas were only a foot or two below the crown of the dike, indicating to Riggs that the water inside the dike was about six inches above the top of the deltas and six inches to a foot below the crown of the dike.

    We walked to the north end of the dike and just past us, the high-water mark on a formerly submerged mobile home was above the end of the dike. The water swept around the north end of the dike, roared down a road paralleling the dike and swept into a peanut field.

    Walking through the peanut field, Riggs pointed out the path the fast-flowing water took in the way the peanuts plants had been uprooted. Even my untrained eye could see the water flow patterns.

    We also found a creek flowing from inside Princeville towards the dike. There was a pipe through the base of the dike to allow the creek to empty into the Tar River, but on the outside of the dike a flap-gate hung over the pipe. The swollen, fast-flowing river held the flap shut, backing the creek up into Princeville.

    Princeville is built in a broad low-lying flood plain. Just across the Tar River and situated on a small bluff is Tarboro. Tarboro flooded, too. But Riggs attributed it to the fact that Princeville's dike kept the Tar River out of its natural floodplain; the river's excess load was forced into Tarboro because it had no place else to go.

    As at Speed, another road dam across the Tar River flood plain created by a recent expansion of U.S. Highway 64 backed up the water into Princeville and Tarboro.

    The dikes built at Speed and Princeville are marvels of poor planning and engineering by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps of Engineers has a long history of poorly planned flood-control projects with dikes and levees that exacerbated the flooding they were designed to control. The most notable example is the 1927 flood in the lower Mississippi Valley. As in North Carolina in 1999 because of heavy rains, flooding was inevitable. But, the Corps' insistence on a levees-only policy to contain the Mississippi River floodwaters caused a flood in 1927 unprecedented to this day.

    As I drove through Duplin County in the Northeast Branch of the Cape Fear River basin, I saw scores of flooded houses. I visited Chinquapin Elementary School, where a shelter had been set up for people left homeless by the floods.

    I saw the ground littered with dead turkeys and chickens. I saw barns full of dead poultry and truckloads of dead poultry being hauled away. As surreal as it might seem in the 80-degree weather, against one fence line I saw what appeared to be a snowdrift. As I got closer I saw that it wasn't a snowdrift. Piles of drowned white turkeys were stuck on the fence left behind by the receding floodwaters.

A Return to the Hogs

    I drove by several hog farms. The barn doors were all wide open, but no hogs were inside. I saw no hogs in trucks, none on the ground, none alive, none dead. No hogs, nowhere. The barns I saw had been under water up until two days previously.

    That was curious to me because Duplin County had the second highest number of hogs of any county in the state. I asked where all the hogs had gone. No one knew. Someone said that maybe they were taking them to the incinerator in Wallace. I drove to Wallace and stopped by the police station. An officer at the station told me there was no livestock incinerator in Wallace that he knew of.

    Some sources who asked not to be named told me that the hog farmers were taking the dead hogs to isolated sections of their farms and burying them in pits. Doug Rader said it's long been standard industry practice to bury dead hogs in shallow pits and trenches. He says he saw one such open pit full of hundreds of hog carcasses in Wilson County in 1995 or 1996.

    The state ordinance governing disposal of hog carcasses states only that carcasses should be "buried in the earth to a depth of at least two feet within twelve hours after the death of the animal." But, those who break the law are guilty only of a Class 3 misdemeanor, "and shall be fined not less than $5 nor more than $10," according to the law. There are no laws in the statutes requiring reporting of hog mortality.

    I became obsessed with finding out what happened to the dead hogs. Two weeks after the spokesperson at the North Carolina Department of Agriculture gave me a figure of 31,000 "confirmed" dead hogs, she gave me a figure of 28,000 "confirmed" dead hogs. I asked how it was possible that the "confirmed" number had dropped by 3,000. She said the 31,000 figure was an estimate of confirmed deaths. I asked how a number could be both an estimate and confirmed at the same time or perhaps she was suggesting that 3,000 hogs had been miraculously resurrected. She became flustered and said I'd have to speak with a deputy commissioner about that. I asked her to connect me with a deputy commissioner. She replied too quickly that none of them were available. She said she'd take my number and have one of them call me. I'm still waiting.

    In late November I returned to North Carolina and met Rick Dove, the Neuse Riverkeeper, in New Bern. Rick arranged an over-flight of Duplin County to look for hog burial sites.

    Rick had retired from the Marine Corps as a colonel in 1987 after 25 years of service. He still retains a military bearing but his relaxed manner belies his military background. He seems 20 years younger than his 60 years and won't countenance being called Colonel Dove.

    The Neuse River Foundation has several pilots at their disposal and Rick arranged a sortie in a small airplane, a Cessna 172. The pilot was a retired Marine Corps fighter pilot who'd flown hundreds of combat missions.

    We squeezed into the tiny aircraft's cabin. Rick climbed into the back. I took the co-pilot's seat and the pilot got in. The pilot was over six feet tall and well over two hundred pounds as am I. It was a tight squeeze. We put on headphones with boom mikes and taxied.

    We took off from the New Bern Airport and flew toward Duplin County. As we flew Rick pointed out numerous hog barns and farms that had been completely submerged by the floods. Rick pointed out one huge swine operation that would have accounted for 20,000 dead hogs by itself. He said it was completely underwater during the floods.

    Then we got to Duplin County. We spotted the town of Wallace and followed Highway 41 north toward Chinquapin. As we flew over, I pointed to River Landing, an exclusive gated development built by hog baron Wendell Murphy. A number of top swine-industry executives lived there.

    Hurricane Floyd was not an equal opportunity destroyer. The vast majority of its victims were the poor and disenfranchised. River Landing was one of the few places where the wealthy felt Floyd's bite.

    I told them that a lot of the big swine executives lived in River Landing. Rick spoke up and said even they got flooded out just like the poor folks up the road, and some ended up with dead hogs floating in their backyards.

    Rick said he'd like to take a closer look so we dropped down and circled around over it. Rick said, "Fetzer, open your window."

    "What?" I asked. I didn't think I was hearing right.

    "Open your window," he said.

    I opened the window. Rick leaned out and began taking pictures. He sat back and said, "Now close it."

    I closed it.

    Then we came to some of the hog farms where there had been no hogs, dead or alive, two months previously. And there they were, exactly what I'd been expecting to see, areas of disturbed earth near the barns but out of sight of public roads. Some of them were slightly mounded and had tire tracks criss-crossing them. We conjectured that as gases in the decomposing hogs bloated the carcasses that they began to float up out of the ground and driving vehicles back and forth across them was an attempt to pack the earth back down.

    Every time we flew over one of these places I had to open the window so Rick could lean out and take pictures.

    Dr. Mark Sobsey, a professor of environmental microbiology at the UNC School of Public Health, said there is a serious potential for disease from improperly buried hog carcasses. The carcasses contain microorganisms that can cause botulism, salmonella cryptosporidium and other serious gastrointestinal diseases.

    In a very short period of time, less than 20 years, the swine industry had grown exponentially to become North Carolina's number-one industry. Eventually it surpassed even tobacco. North Carolina is now the number-two hog producing state in the country, ranking just behind Iowa.

    One of the reasons for the industry's rapid growth was its almost complete lack of regulation. For years the hog industry, although producing large amounts of pollution, both airborne and in the waters, escaped virtually any oversight. The few environmental regulations that did apply to the swine industry were often unenforceable, because the legislature provided little or no funding for enforcement.

    Swine industry leaders became major political players, doling out lavish political contributions to state legislators and other elected officials. For example, in a two-year period, 1991-92, Wendell Murphy--whose Murphy Family Farms were the world's largest swine operation--and members of his immediate family gave North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt $40,000 in campaign contributions.

    Beginning in the early 1990s, a grassroots backlash against the hog industry began to take shape. Neighbors of hog farms grew sick of the stench. Hog lagoon spills and leakage contaminated streams and rivers, causing massive fish kills on a fairly regular basis.

    In Eastern North Carolina, hogs outnumber people five-to-one. Nearly 10 million hogs to 2 million people. The entire human population of North Carolina is only 7.5 million.

    In 1995, two events occurred that brought about a shift against the hog industry. The News and Observer ran a multi-part Pulitzer Prize-winning expose on the hog industry and an eight-acre hog-waste lagoon at Ocean View Farms in Onslow County spilled more than 20 million gallons of waste into the New River.

    In the wake of those events the legislature established a moratorium on new hog farms or expansion of existing ones, unless they implemented new, environmentally safe measures to deal with the wastes. Existing farms, however, were not required to do away with hog lagoons or convert to new waste-management technologies. Many expanding farms have been able to grow dramatically, without converting to new waste disposal systems, thanks to loopholes in the law.

The Impacts on Coastal Fishing

    In my November trip back to the flooded areas I followed up on some of the things I'd reported on immediately after the flood.

    There was some concern that nutrients and contaminants from the floods could devastate North Carolina's fisheries as they spilled into the Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds. I was also hearing about sores on menhaden, a commercial fish used for fertilizer and oil, and about North Carolina's fish being unsafe to eat.

    I went to Beaufort and interviewed Captain Tommy Lewis on his shrimp boat, the Charles V. Smith. Lewis is a wiry man, in his late 30s, with a strong high-tider accent. He immediately laid to rest rumors that the menhaden sores were in any way associated with the flood.

    Lewis said the sores "have been going on since the beginning of time. It's nothing new. They have sores every winter when the water starts turning cold. We're getting a lot of media blow-up on it and it's uncalled for. I've talked with people who've been messing on the water for 50 or 60 years and it's the same stuff they've been seeing for years."

    Dr. Larry Crowder, a marine biologist with the Duke University Marine Biology Lab in Beaufort, confirmed Lewis' take on the Menhaden sores.

    Crowder said, "The sores and Menhaden, yeah, it's been going on for 20 years or more."

    According to Lewis, Crowder and Gerry Smith, the owner of T.D, Smith's Fish House in Beaufort, 1999 has been a bumper crop for white shrimp. Lewis said it's been the best shrimp year for him ever.

    Crowder said, "We knew from the early shrimp surveys and from the yields earlier in the year that it was a killer shrimp year and nobody knows quite why, I mean it's just the right conditions or something."

    Both Crowder and the state Division of Marine Fisheries have confirmed that North Carolina seafood is safe to eat, contrary to rumors otherwise.

    But there's concern among all three about the long-term effects of the flood.

    Lewis said, "We haven't been hurt (by the flood) this year. Now, what it does next year and what it does to the fin fish, you know, what it did to the juvenile fin fish, we don't know."

    Gerry Smith, a white-haired man was icing down a nice catch of Whiting that had just been offloaded from a boat onto his dock when I first met him. I waited and then we talked in his office.

    Smith said, "It will be next spring and summer before we know (how the flooding affected juvenile fish and shrimp)."

    Referring to cobia, grouper and some other fish species that breed and spawn in the Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds Smith said, "You're looking at a fish that takes three to four years to mature so I really think we won't know for some time. All we can do is be optimistic and hope for the best."

    Crowder does not sound optimistic about the sounds escaping major fish kills next year. The floodwaters poured nutrients, much of it nitrates from hog wastes, into the rivers.

    He said, "The chlorophyll levels have gone up by a factor of eight to ten compared to last fall so the algae is starting to incorporate all of these nutrients into making more algae."

    The cause of most major fish kills in North Carolina waters are columns of anoxic water created by alga blooms. These alga blooms use up the oxygen in the water causing the fish to suffocate. Rural natives of Eastern North Carolina call these events "Jubilee" because fish leap high out of the water trying to get oxygen from the air into their gills. It looks like they're jumping for joy. In fact, they are slowly suffocating.

    Crowder said, "We expect pretty substantial algae blooms out there (next spring) because you have the inorganic nutrients that went into this system. And as the decomposers work away on all the organic material that went in like hog waste and stuff, they're going to release nutrients which the algae are going to pick up, and the algae will grow and die and be picked up, and it will create a cycle. If we have a wet spring and a wet summer, it'll be trouble. But if we have a wet spring and a dry, windy summer that will be good because that will keep oxygen from the atmosphere circulating through the water. I've been talking to some other scientists and it will probably be years before this all plays out, before the Floyd effects begin to recede, you know, three, four or five years."

    According to the EDF's Rader, North Carolina's Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds are the main breeding and spawning grounds for croaker, spot, cobia, grouper and other species commercial and game fish for the entire Middle-Western Atlantic fisheries, from Long Island to the Florida Keys. Major fish kills in the sounds could devastate fishing throughout the region.

Volunteers Pitch in, Government Fails

    As I drove through Eastern North Carolina I noticed the corridors along the area's major highways like U.S. 64 and 70 and I-40 and I-95, any place likely to be seen by tourists, showed almost no sign of the recent disaster. They were Disneyland clean.

    The side roads and back roads in the same areas still looked like a war zone with abandoned homes, automobiles and businesses, debris piles and standing pools of rank, fetid water.

    From Beaufort I returned to the Highway 41 corridor in Duplin County to see what headway they were making toward recovery. The scene was still bleak and desolate. Most of the houses were still abandoned and ghostly. Many of them had camper trailers parked beside them, supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Some houses still had debris piled in their yards. The overwhelming stench was gone but I detected hints of it when I passed by the debris piles.

    I went by the Gray's house. The only flooded-out people I'd been able bring myself to interview immediately after the flood. They were back in their house after onlyfive weeks of staying with relatives.

    "We have so much to be thankful for," said Laurie Gray, "We had so much help." The Grays had to remove all of their floors, cabinets and walls. They lost all of their furniture except in two rooms. Their damage totaled $30,000.00.

    She sent me down the road to a particularly devastated street. On that street several houses were swarming with workers wearing bright yellow caps and navy blue t-shirts. The caps and shirts had a logo bearing the Christian fish symbol in the center of an outline of the state of North Carolina. Written above the logo were the words "Disaster Recovery" and below it "North Carolina Baptist Men." And there were Baptist women working side-by-side with the Baptist men.

    All of the workers I saw were white, but the owner of the home they were working on was a black woman, Betty Pickett.

    A couple of hours earlier a friend of mine from Chinquapin, Edythe Brown, told me that in the flood's aftermath, "People weren't black people or white people. They were just people."

    At Betty Pickett's house I spoke with Ren Ramsey from Shelby. He said he and a team of people from Elizabeth Baptist Church in Shelby had been working in Duplin County for the past three days. They were going home that night. He said most of the work they'd been doing was cleaning up and tearing out sheetrock.

    Pickett said, "I cried when they came in today because today started out as such a low day. Them being here has given me a lot of emotional support. Things are a whole lot better now. When they came the house was contaminated with human waste, mud and everything."

    I was asking Betty Pickett about the colorblindness that seemed to have occurred in Duplin County since the flood, when I met a most unlikely angel.

    A large, freckled, redheaded man with a booming voice stepped into the room and said, "Until about two weeks ago 75 percent of the relief around here was done by neighbor helping neighbor. The black folk and white folk came through for each other, but that's not exactly true for our Hispanic brothers. The Hispanics have not been treated exactly like home folks (by the blacks or the whites). They've sort of been shunned."

    He paused and thought for a few seconds and said, "Some people think they're coming in and taking jobs away, but the jobs they do are ones no one else will do, like working in pack houses and picking cucumbers in the hot sun."

    The man's name was Andy Wood. He was the pastor of Bethany Baptist Church in Nine Mile, N.C., and it appeared he pretty much single-handedly organized and ran the North Carolina Baptist Men's relief work along that rough stretch of road.

    He told me groups from all over the state were coming down to Duplin County to help in the relief work. He said I could ride with him on his rounds if I wanted to. We walked out to his pickup, a big blue and white Ford F-250 with a club cab and a camper shell. Above the front grill was a bug screen with "Red Headed Wild Man" written on it and below it was a license tag that read "Jesus". Written on the tailgate was the legend "Pulling for Jesus."

    A small white trailer was hitched to his truck with the words "New River Baptist Association Disaster Recovery and Handyman Ministry." Inside the trailer were enough construction equipment and supplies to build a city.

    We drove to Pete and Eleanor Brinkley's house, which had been flooded out. Inside was a team of workers, most from Eden, a small town north of Greensboro. The first Baptist Church in Eden had adopted the Brinkleys and bought most of the supplies, flooring, sheetrock, insulation to restore their home.

    Tommy Griffin who was heading the team said, "Three people came down here originally to tear out the walls and all and now we've come back to put it right."

    Pete Brinkley, 73, said, "We've gotten more help from churches than from the government. It's really been amazing how the general public has responded to this. The government helps some, but it's slow and they've got too many rules and regulations. If they're going to help us, why don't they just help us?"

    I wondered the same thing myself. I'd expected to see National Guard troops on their weekend duty, soldiers from Ft. Bragg and marines from Camp Lejeune pitching in to help. Instead I found an army of Southern Baptists.

    Farther down Highway 41 in the Northeast community, Andy Wood's volunteers had just finished restoring an apartment attached to the Cavenaugh Family Supper House, a restaurant run by Sam Cavenaugh and his wife, Dawn. His mother, Lib Cavenaugh lived in the apartment. The restaurant's windows were boarded up with plywood and spray-painted in orange and red on the plywood was "Help Needed!!! Volunteers." Andy saw the sign and the volunteers came.

    Sam Cavenaugh, 53, saw the floods take his home, his business, his son's home and his mother's home. His wife, Dawn, said they lost everything. The Cavenaughs were living in an older, small camper trailer beside their shell of a house. He put a sign in front of the trailer that read "This trailer is not from FEMA."

    A passing television crew saw the sign and filmed it. Sam said the next day a man from FEMA showed up and measured out a plot for a trailer.

Who's to Blame?

    I'm sad about what I saw in North Carolina and I'm angry, too. I'm angry because that "500-year flood" didn't have to happen and it shouldn't have happened. Sure, with the amount of rain that fell in that short period of time there would have been flooding. But the massive extent of the flooding and the pollution that went along with it didn't have to happen. Hurricanes are an act of God, but this was a disaster that was made by man.

    Dr. Riggs said, "The magnitude of this flood is an entirely human-created event. Dennis and Floyd were relatively small hurricanes, not whomper storms."

    The EDF's Rader, who's conferred with a number of other experts about the flood said, "We, as scientists, believe that a significant part of the flooding and the severity of its impact is a result of poor management decisions [regarding wetlands] made over the last 30 years. It is our opinion that intensive land use in marginal areas has directly contributed to the seriousness of the flooding from expectedly and predictably large amounts of rainfall."

    The amount of folly and sheer greed that created this avoidable disaster is mind-boggling. More than a third of the total losses of the state's wetlands occurred after the flood-control functions of wetlands were fully understood. According to Riggs, wetland functions were widely known by the early to mid-1960s.

    Most of that loss was from huge corporate concerns, not small farmers and most not even North Carolina based firms. Open Ground Farms in Carteret County, where tens and thousands of acres of wetlands were ditched in drained in the 1970s, is an Italian concern. First Colony Farms in Hyde County is a corporate farm, one of whose major investors was the Prudential Insurance Company. It was ditched and drained in the 1970s, too.

    The bulk of the wetland loss that occurred between the mid-1970sand the mid-1980s was to sylvaculture or pine plantations. The major culprits there are two paper companies, Weyerhauser in the northern coastal plain and Champion, now International Paper, in the southern coastal plain.

    Now, the pollution, that's a no-brainer. Most of the pollution came from inappropriate uses of the flood plain. Flood plain is not a euphemism. It's exactly what it sounds like. They're called flood plains because they flood. So, places that flood are not good places to locate junkyards; chemical, pesticide and fuel oil tanks; human wastewater treatment plants and hog lagoons.

    Lagoon sounds kind of pleasant doesn't it? Well hog lagoon is a euphemism. A hog lagoon is actually a huge open-air pit, sometimes several acres in size, full of untreated hog shit and piss. A hog excretes between three and five times more waste in a day than a human being. Forty-seven hog lagoons were underwater during the floods and five broke. All of them were located in the flood plain.

    Who in their right mind would allow such facilities to be located in the flood plain? The North Carolina General Assembly, that's who. And junkyards and chemical storage tanks and wastewater treatment plants? The General Assembly.

    In the past few years a lot has been written in op-ed pieces in newspapers and there's been a lot of talk on the airwaves about the lack of "personal responsibility" in today's society. Usually that talk comes up in reference to welfare recipients, criminals, youth and other easy targets.

    I don't see any timber, agri-business, swine executives or politicians stepping forward to assume personal responsibility for the disaster they created. The swine and timber industries aren't even major players in the disaster-relief effort and the state government doesn't have the gumption to call them on it.

    I asked Tad Boggs, a spokesman for Gov. Hunt's office about the swine industry and paper companies' contributions to the Hurricane Floyd Disaster Relief Fund. He said he didn't have all the information available, but he didn't recall any major contributions from either of the two industries. He did say both Blue Cross/Blue Shield and Food Lion gave $1 million each. Also more than 60,000 individuals and contributed more than $16 million dollars to disaster relief.

    Beth Ann Mumford of the N.C. Pork Council did not return calls about their contributions to disaster relief.

    The state of North Carolina taxes certain products and levies fees on others. There's a crown tax on soft drinks, a gas tax, a tax on cigarettes. There's a fee on every tire bought in North Carolina.

    It seems only fair that the industries that played should pay. Why not a per-acre fee on harvesting pine trees? Why not a modest tax on hogs?

    The big swine operations like Smithfield and Murphy and Prestage are billion-dollar operations. They can afford it. So can Weyerhauser and International Paper and the huge agri-businesses that drained the wetlands.

The Governor

    Even if they can't be made to pay what's fair, I'd like to see someone, business executive or politician, stand up and take personal responsibility for the flooding and pollution.

    Gov. Hunt could set a great example by accepting some measure of personal responsibility for the flooding. After all, it was during his first two terms as governor from 1976 to 1984 that about a third of all the state's wetland losses occurred. Hunt, at that time, was one of the strongest governors in the state's history.

    Barlow Herget, a special assistant to the Secretary of Commerce dealing with energy affairs, said, "In those days when you took a bill over to a legislator, the first thing you were asked was, 'Is this the governor's Bill?' meaning if it is, I want to get on board."

    Herget also said, "If Hunt was behind a bill it was going to pass."

    Gov. Hunt called a special session of the legislature on December 15 to approve an $830 million dollar flood relief package, three months after Floyd struck. His plan does not raise taxes or levy any fees.

    His proposal is to strip an already bare-bones state budget by removing funds from vital state agencies already reeling from previous budget cuts, like the Departments of Health and Human Services and Crime Control and Public Safety. He proposes to raid the state's "Rainy Day Fund", North Carolina's primary reserve. He's borrowing from Peter to pay Paul.

    We're entering a new hurricane cycle. What's going to happen when the next rainy day comes?

    If government and business fail to learn from this disaster and act responsibly, it will happen again and again and again.
Next Story

Home Contents Links Masthead Search Calendar Advertise

Copyright The Southerner 2000.