A natural disaster, according to the Department of Homeland Security, is a severe weather or geological event “which [has] the potential to pose a significant threat to human health and safety, property, critical infrastructure, and homeland security.” Hurricanes clearly qualify as natural disasters, and arguably so do some harmful algal blooms. Unusually large outbreaks of certain types of marine organisms can produce toxins in sufficient quantity to harm wildlife and ecosystems, devastate coastal tourism and fishing economies, and cause illness and even death in humans.
The impact of any natural disaster can be lessened — or worsened — by the ways in which society prepares and responds. In the case of three recent tragedies in the Southeastern United States — Hurricane Florence in North Carolina, Hurricane Michael in Florida and the harmful algal blooms affecting Florida’s waterways — the states’ actions in the years prior have made each of these events much worse. Both states’ refusal to come to terms with the impacts of climate change, and their haste to protect agricultural industries and utility companies, turned these catastrophes into “unnatural disasters.”
Our greenhouse gas emissions are warming the planet and we have known this for decades. In fact, the basic mechanisms and general effects of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were worked about by the 1890s. While most of the U.S. could do better at reducing greenhouse gases and preparing for the impacts, North Carolina and Florida are practically in a class by themselves when it comes to formalizing climate change denial into state policy. North Carolina’s state legislature in 2012 passed a law forbidding state agencies from using climate models, which show that the rate of sea rise will increase over the course of this century, in their planning efforts. The failure to account for these changes means that a lot more homes were built in the path of danger. And in Florida, the climate blinders were even bigger: Outgoing Governor — and Senator-Elect — Rick Scott quietly instituted a policy that employees of the Department of Environmental Protection were not to use the term “climate change” or “global warming” in any official communications, emails, or reports and other state agencies also limited the use of these terms in their materials.
While we are continually refining our understanding of climate change and weather impacts, climate scientists can now state with confidence that climate has contributed to the severity of individual storms, like last year’s hurricanes Maria, Harvey, and Irma and this year’s Florence and Michael. This is due mainly to the fact that warmer air holds more moisture and thus produces more rainfall, and because sea levels have risen by about a foot, giving a boost to storm surges and even increasing “sunny day” coastal flooding during high tides. Michael was particularly terrifying and destructive due to its intensification from a tropical storm to nearly Category 5 strength in just three days, hitting the coast with winds 40 mph faster than had been predicted. The fact that unusually warm ocean waters provide “high-octane fuel” for rapid hurricane intensification is clearly understood by climate scientists.
While our coastal environments are adapted to hurricanes we must consider that with the loss of habitat coupled with more frequent and intense storms many species face increase risks and the ecosystems they depend on are less resilient. For this reason single storms can cause major impacts especially to small, isolated populations of imperiled species such as Key deer, Puerto Rican parrots, red cockaded woodpeckers, Miami blue butterflies, and endangered beach mice.
Nearly 20 years ago, Hurricane Floyd swamped North Carolina with enough rain to flood almost every river basin in the Eastern part of the state. Consequently, loosely-regulated hog and poultry producers across the region suffered enormous losses and the floodwaters breached the countless waste “lagoons” that held manure in storage — sending gallons upon gallons of toxic material into surrounding waterways. The pollutants left behind by hog waste are known to cause significant human health issues and contribute to harmful algal blooms and impaired water quality.
Fast forward to 2018, and we find ourselves in a similar predicament. Despite the widespread, devasting flooding of Hurricane Floyd, regulations governing hog farms and waste lagoons haven’t changed very much. Within North Carolina’s 100-year floodplain, there are currently still more than 60 hog producers in business. In September, Hurricane Florence caused more than 50 hog waste lagoons to overflow and spill into the floodwaters inundating the region. Shortly after, the EPA announced that it was monitoring the area’s drinking water for contamination.
Hog waste isn’t the only thing floating around in North Carolina’s floodwaters after large storm events: Duke Energy, the country’s largest utility, owns and operates four coal ash ponds within the 100-year floodplain, as well. At least two of these disposal sites were breached during Hurricane Florence, spilling toxic coal ash containing heavy metals like mercury and arsenic into the waters and out across surrounding lands. Again, this is nothing new for NC: in 2014, Duke Energy was responsible for spilling “approximately 39,000 tons of ash and 27 million gallons of ash pond water” into the Dan River. Not long before this devastating spill, then-governor (and former 28-year Duke Energy employee) Pat McCrory had instructed the state Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ) to operate in a more “business friendly” manner — i.e., approving environmental permits as quickly as possible. That directive was only the latest in a long pattern of budget slashes for the agency — cuts that, arguably, were meant to serve as warnings that agency officials needed to stay in their lane and let big business do its thing.
Widely circulated photos and videos showed dead fish littering Interstate 40 in North Carolina and crews cleaning the highway with fire hoses after high waters retreated. Many freshwater aquatic species, like mussels and amphibians, feel the impacts of severe pollution as well. While mussels are, by design, the clean-up crew of the river basin, they unfortunately are not equipped to handle the load of chemical pollution that finds its way into our streams and rivers. Similarly, many species of freshwater fish, mussel, and amphibian rely on small, localized ranges and cannot pick up and move when their homes become to toxic to survive in.
Further south, Florida continues to deal with one of the worst algal blooms in its history. An outbreak of “red tide” that began in southwest Florida in November 2017 has since affected the coastline from the Panhandle in northwest Florida all the way around the bottom of the peninsula up to the mid-Atlantic coast of Florida. Instead of helping to dissipate the bloom, Hurricane Michael spread it around and blew it onshore.
As if a red tide isn’t enough, the other side of the Florida peninsula — particularly in waterways downstream of Lake Okeechobee — has been fighting a plague of toxic blue-green algae for months. These harmful algal blooms occur when tiny algae or bacteria proliferate wildly within fresh or ocean water. They cause damage by depleting the oxygen supply in the water and producing toxins. The blue green algal bloom in Lake Okeechobee also exacerbated southwest Florida’s red tide when it flowed into the Gulf from the Caloosahatchee River — a double-hit to the southwestern shores still experiencing catastrophic wildlife deaths.
The current red tide has already persisted longer than any other in over a decade. Since November 2017, more than 540 sea turtles, nearly 200 manatees, over 65 bottlenose dolphins, many birds of various species, and thousands of tons of fish including sharks, goliath groupers, and tarpon, have been killed by the brevetoxin. In recent months, the algal bloom has driven away tourists, hurt local businesses, and caused respiratory illnesses, headaches, rashes, and gastrointestinal distress when it reached the coastline.
The crisis in southwest Florida is a familiar one, even if its scale is unprecedented. Phosphorus, nitrogen and other nutrient pollution flowing into waters — from farm fields, sugar operations, golf courses, lawns, and septic tanks — can greatly fuel these outbreaks. And then a warming climate makes harmful algal blooms even worse. Several toxin-producing species grow faster in warmer water, and intense precipitation events tend to flush large amounts of nutrient-laden runoff into waterways.
Over the past year, record rains combined with high temperatures and warm waters have created a perfect storm for dangerous algal blooms. When water levels in the lake become high, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers releases water to the east via the St. Lucie Canal and to the west via the Caloosahatchee River because the aging Herbert Hoover Dike could fail and endanger nearby towns and agricultural operations.
Before the Everglades ecosystem was altered, water would slowly flow south from the lake across the wetlands to Florida Bay. The area was drained and engineered to make way for development and agriculture, and the St. Lucie River and Caloosahatchee River were dredged and connected to the coasts on both sides of the state.
Where do we go from here?
It’s safe to say that these unnatural disasters have not gone unnoticed by the public or elected officials. In Florida, politicians actively campaigned around the algal bloom, blaming each other in television ads and in speeches. This situation touches on a range of issues ranging from past alteration of the Everglades ecosystem to deregulation of many environmental protections. These protections could conceivably have mitigated the damage now being visited upon the southern Florida coastline and its residents. Instead, more pollution, less oversight, and a depleted budget for remediation helped set the stage for the current algal explosion.
In North Carolina, it’s time that state environmental agencies take the reins on livestock production. While concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) regulations were revamped in the 1990s following the Hurricane Floyd disaster, the revisions did little to close the numerous loopholes for hog farm operations. Similarly, this industry is still entirely self-regulated, and operators are responsible for self-reporting spills, damaged equipment, and other hazardous occurrences. Considering the extensive water quality, air quality, and human health concerns with hog waste, this is simply unacceptable.
The bottom line is clear: there must be a concerted effort to strengthen environmental regulations around agricultural operations and development. Officials are responding with stop-gap measures (e.g. funding and equipment to clean beaches). This band-aid approach will not help prevent similar crises in the future and both human and wildlife lives will continue to be lost if we do not act now. Climate change is not going to fix itself. Decision makers need to recognize the severity of ignoring warming temperatures and sea level rise. It is their responsibility to protect our coastal communities and our natural heritage. Their constituents are already feeling the impacts of inaction and ignorance — all too often paying the ultimate price with their lives. These disasters will continue to get worse unless we act, and act fast.