Rick Dove is an environmental paparazzo operating at more than 1,000 feet above the ground.
A senior advisor with the Waterkeeper Alliance, he circles the floodwaters from Hurricane Florence in the back seat of a tiny propeller plane, gripping his camera while searching for toxic problems below.
Like a shutterbug hunting for a scandal-plagued celebrity, he points the pilot toward a hog farm near the overflowing Trent River in eastern North Carolina. There are two open-air lagoons where waste from the animals is deposited, and one appears to have been inundated.
Some of the manure may have escaped, seeping back into the river and contributing to hazards that environmentalists have been warning about since before Florence made landfall Friday morning.
“They said they fixed it so it wouldn’t happen again,” said Dove, 79. “Well, Mother Nature had different ideas.”
Hog farms are one of the most problematic environmental challenges after Florence dumped a historic amount of rain on the region, but they’re far from the only one. Advocates have been keeping a close eye on coal ash basins, where the residue from power plants is stored, and toxic sites across the state. Floodwaters can rise high enough to mix with contaminants and then deposit them back into rivers and wetlands that provide drinking water and natural habitats.
These fears have existed for years in a low-lying state with a network of rivers that can disperse pollutants for miles. Now climate change is increasing concerns that storms like Florence will strike more often, altering the calculus for where industries will be safe from flooding.
“This is a time to recognize that there’s a new normal in environmental protection right now,” said Thomas A. Burke, an associate dean at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
In the past, powerful storms have prompted sweeping changes in North Carolina. After Hurricane Floyd battered the state in 1999 and dead hogs floated in the floodwaters, the state bought out farms in vulnerable areas.
It remains to be seen whether Florence will prompt similar policy changes, with farms or any other industry. Researchers and advocates said it’s time to update rules for where facilities can be located and how waste can be stored as hurricanes appear to be growing more common and bring heavier rainfall with them.
“These are changes that are consistent with what we would see from the effects of climate change,” said Martin Doyle, a Duke University professor who studies rivers. “It’s a totally different calculus.”
A church is surrounded by floodwaters from Hurricane Florence in Conway, S.C.(Sean Rayford / Getty Images)
Floodwaters surround a barn after Hurricane Florence struck the Carolinas near Wallace, S.C.(Sean Rayford / Getty Images)
The Lumber River overflows onto a stretch of Interstate 95 in Lumberton, N.C.(Gerry Broome / Associated Press)
A resident surveys a flooded road in Lumberton, N.C.(Gerry Broome / Associated Press)
Tree limbs are caught under a railway bridge as Russell Maloy checks the level of the Cape Fear River in Fayetteville, N.C.(David Goldman / Associated Press)
An American flag flies in the wind as the Cape Fear River rises to near record heights in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence in Fayetteville, N.C.(David Goldman / Associated Press)
Scott Jones wades through about three feet of floodwater down the street he grew up on to check the condition of his father’s home after the Nuese River and a nearby creek overflowed during Hurricane Florence in Kinston, N.C.(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
Homes and a marina are flooded as a result of high tides and rain from hurricane Florence which moved through the area in Jacksonville, N.C.(Steve Helber / Associated Press)
Bob Richling carries Iris Darden, 84, out of her flooded home as her daughter-in-law, Pam Darden, gathers her belongings in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence in Spring Lake, N.C.(David Goldman / Associated Press)
An above ground pool is surrounded by floodwaters from Hurricane Florence in Lumberton, N.C.(Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)
A man carries a flag to place on his truck as members of a punt team with the United States Coast Guard preform search and rescue through flood waters in Lumberton, N.C.(Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post)
Cars are submerged in a neighborhood in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence in Fayetteville, N.C.(Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)
Residents paddle a boat through a flooded neighborhood in Lumberton, N.C.(Gerry Broome / Associated Press)
A member of the United States Coast Guard is seen reflected in the window of a house as he wades through flood waters for a wellness check on citizens who choose to stay in their home in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence on Sept 16, 2018 in Lumberton, N.C.(Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post)
A man wades across a bridge flooded by Hurricane Florence in Pollocksville, N.C.(ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP/Getty Images)
Chavez Gallegos helps his family move out of a flooded home in Kinston, N.C., in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence.(Travis Long / Raleigh News & Observer)
Floodwaters surround buildings on Front Street in downtown Swansboro N.C.(Tom Copeland / Associated Press)
A road is washed out by the rains from Hurricane Florence as it passed through the area in Fayetteville, N.C.(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
A boat pushed ashore by Hurricane Florence rests in front of a damaged home in New Bern, N.C.(Gray Whitley / Associated Press)
Flood waters from Hurricane Florence surround a house and flow along the street in Fayetteville, N.C.(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
Homes along the New River are flooded as a result of high tides and rain from Hurricane Florence, which moved through the area in Jacksonville, N.C.(Steve Helber / Associated Press)
A man moves his horses from rising water in Lumberton, N.C., following flooding from now Tropical Depression Florence.(Gerry Broome / Associated Press)
Helen McKoy walks down a flooded street in her neighborhood as Florence continues to dump heavy rain in Fayetteville, N.C.(David Goldman / Associated Press)
Members of the North Carolina Task Force urban search and rescue team wade through a flooded neighborhood looking for residents who stayed behind as Florence continues to dump heavy rain in Fayetteville, N.C.(David Goldman / Associated Press)
Erick Martinez grills chicken on the porch of his home as floodwaters from Hurricane Florence rise in the Magnolia Mobile Home Park north of Lumberton, N.C.(Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA / Shutterstock)
A resident walks from his flooded house toward the crew of the Cajun Navy in Lumberton, N.C.(Alex Edelman / AFP/Getty Images)
Floodwaters from Hurricane Florence rush down Cool Spring Street, inundating the St. James Church in Fayetteville, N.C.(Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA / Shutterstock)
Florence has caused havoc with the state’s infrastructure since it began hammering the coastline last week. The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority lost electricity as the storm arrived, and then a backup generator failed. About 5.25 million gallons of partially treated wastewater were released in the nearby river before it was safe for workers to repair the generator.
“It was unavoidable,” Jim Flechtner, the utility’s executive director. “It’s just not safe to send people out in high winds and heavy rains.”
Another problem was suffered at a shuttered Duke Energy power plant near Wilmington, in the southeastern corner of the state. About 2,000 cubic yards of coal ash were displaced when water ran into a landfill, although it’s unclear how much reached the nearby Cape Fear River.
Monitoring trouble spots is a severe challenge after a hurricane. The same floods that have trapped people in their homes have also cut regulators off from the facilities they need to monitor. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to deploy teams Wednesday to high-priority toxic sites, and state officials are trying to do the same.
“Many roads are still impassable, so it is not safe to inspect,” said Megan Thorpe, the communications director for the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality.
The challenge is why the Waterkeeper Alliance, which monitors rivers, lakes and other waterways for pollution, has been relying on a tiny air force of four prop planes, clocking more than a dozen hours in the sky since Monday. All of them have been taking off out of a small regional airport in New Bern, where metal siding from damaged hangars, shorn off by the hurricane, still litter the ground.
Dove has been taking environmental reconnaissance flights for a quarter of a century, and Tuesday’s flight was his second after Florence. The Cessna 172 bumps through the air like a low-riding jalopy on a pockmarked country road. It’s roughly the size of an original Volkswagen Beetle with wings attached, and nearly as old too.
The pilot, Aaron Stranathan, 21, is in no rush to return to land, indulging Dove’s requests to bank left and right to get the best shot of a flooded farm.
“The longer you want to fly, the longer I can wait before I go home to no power,” said Stranathan, who lives in Newport, N.C.
Dove doesn’t have any electricity back at his house either, relying on a generator since the storm knocked out power. He lives along the Neuse River about a dozen miles from downtown New Bern, a city that had some of the worst flooding in the state. His house was generally unscathed, but his boat dock was destroyed.
There are 3,300 hog lagoons in North Carolina, according to state regulators. Four have suffered Florence-related structural damage of some kind. Some waste may have escaped 13 others during flooding, another nine have been inundated, and dozens more remain at risk. The numbers are reported by the farmers themselves.
“So far, we seem to be weathering this storm pretty well, especially in light of the Armageddon-type reporting we’ve seen,” said Michael Formica, an assistant vice president at the National Pork Producers Council.
He added, “The forecasts are detached from reality.”
Dove isn’t so sure, and from the air he spots what he thinks could be a small breach in the side of a lagoon. The waste is pink from the bacteria that breed inside, and traces of the color outside of the berms could signal a problem.
“See where there’s a little bit of pink there?” Dove says, pointing. “Looks like there’s a cut there.”
The camera clicks, and then Dove guides the plane toward Duplin County, the heart of North Carolina’s pork industry. Even at 1,300 feet and nearly 100 knots, there’s a brief whiff of manure with the Cessna’s windows open. Flooded farms stretch across the landscape, the water shimmering in the sunlight as it saturates fields, homes and roads.
“The pork industry is incredibly powerful in North Carolina,” said Alexis Andiman, an associate attorney with Earthjustice, an environmental law organization. “State regulators haven’t done enough.”
The North Carolina Pork Council said it prepared for the hurricane by lowering the levels of the lagoons to accommodate more rainwater, using the manure as fertilizer in nearby fields.
“Our guys have more attention on them, and have had more attention on them, than anyone else,” Formica said. “And they do a heck of a job.”
It could be days, weeks or even months before the full extent of the damage from Florence becomes known. Rivers are still expected to rise, and flooding could reach more farms, coal ash basins and other industrial sites.
It’s a slow process that can hurt the ecosystem and the people who live there. And fixing the problems can be just as slow.
“Environmental protection is the long-term problem, long after the media has gone,” Burke said. “Recovery is really tough, and you have to keep people safe through the entire process.