As Florence battered the Carolinas this past week, dozens of heartwarming animal-rescue stories made national headlines ― dogs sprung from flooding homes, pets packed into a school bus, cats plucked directly from the water.
But millions of animals would not be so lucky.
An estimated 5,500 pigs and 3.4 million chickens and turkeys in North Carolina have died as a result of the storm, according to the state’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Aerial photos of the state from earlier this week showed multiple industrial barns almost completely submerged in water.
Estimates on how many farm animals have died were based on field assessments by emergency workers and veterinarians directly after the storm, Reuters reports.
Those numbers are “preliminary” and “likely to change,” NCDACS spokeswoman Heather Overton told HuffPost.
She said the estimates include animal deaths from direct storm damage, like wind or collapsing buildings, or from drowning.
She added there were also farms currently cut off from necessities like animal feed, and that the agriculture department was working on getting supplies to these farms. Earlier this week, poultry producer Sanderson Farms noted that multiple farms were unreachable because of floodwater and in dire need of food for the birds.
The estimated 5,000 pigs and 3.4 million birds believed dead are out of a total of about 9 million pigs and 819 million chickens and turkeys across the state, Overton said.
Most of those animals were, of course, ultimately bound to be slaughtered. But some animal advocates saw the livestock death toll as reflective of an industrial farming system largely unconcerned with the welfare of individual animals.
“Animals exploited for food are treated like unfeeling commodities rather than individuals with a will to live, and they are commonly caged and confined in warehouses, making it impossible for them to escape when disasters strike,” Susie Coston, national shelter director for farm animal protection group Farm Sanctuary, told HuffPost in a statement.
And the Humane Society of the United States said in a statement that while emergency preparations for farms has improved over the years, “it is clear that disaster planning for animals held in large numbers is far from where it needs to be for the lives affected, both human and animal.”
Florence’s impact on North Carolina’s numerous hog farms poses risks to human health as well, thanks to so-called lagoons that contain pig feces, urine and whatever else drops below the slatted floors of industrial barns and gets pumped into large man-made holes in the ground.
Severe rain or rising floodwaters can cause the lagoon contents to overflow. And festering pig waste mixing with floodwater can be a health hazard, especially for people with weaker immune systems.
“If you have a child or someone elderly or on a steroid inhaler or on chemotherapy, they may be more fragile,” H. Kim Lyerly, Duke University pathology and immunology professor, told The News & Observer.
And as The New York Times notes, lagoon leakages can cause major environmental hazards when untreated waste contributes to algal blooms that kill marine life.
According to Wednesday data from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, 21 lagoons had overflowed and 17 had surface water “surrounding and flowing into” the lagoon. An additional five lagoons had structural damage, while 36 were in a state where overflowing was considered likely.