We Animals Media hits the ground to document the aftermath of Hurricane Florence. 

Story and video by Kelly Guerin.
All images by Jo-Anne McArthur except where noted. 

What could we learn from this tragedy if we focused, instead, on the millions of animals that had been excluded from the death toll and the massive farming systems that had kept them there? That was the question we came to ask.

Pigs who survived the hurricane and escaped their farm, swim through flood waters. Photo: Kelly Guerin

In September of 2018, Hurricane Florence was fast approaching the coast of North Carolina. These devastating category 4 storms, which used to happen once every hundred years, are  – forebodingly – becoming more familiar to the region. Families with homes in high-risk areas knew the drill; most began to evacuate, bundling their children and pets into their cars along with their precious belongings, photo albums, family heirlooms, anything they could fit.

But houses were not the only structures built on the floodplain. North Carolina farms raise over 800 million chickens and nine million pigs each year, making it the second largest hog-producing state in the country. Most of these animals are kept in long, rectangular sheds known as CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), which are designed to house hundreds of animals or, in the case of chickens, tens of thousands in a single structure. Hundreds of these colossal buildings were constructed in known and recurring flood zones.
For millions of animals trapped inside, there would be no evacuation, no supplies left behind, no official rescue to come. Instead, as the winds picked up and rain began to fall, farmers took one last walk out to the barns, shut the doors, and locked the animals inside.

We arrived separately, Jo and I, just three days after Florence had passed. Media agencies worldwide were descending upon the Carolinas to cover the aftermath of the storm, but we were familiar with the types of coverage that natural disasters such as these had received in the past: loss of human life, property damage, and often-vague references to environmental destruction. But what could we learn from this tragedy if we focused, instead, on the millions of animals that had been excluded from the death toll and the massive farming systems that had kept them there? That was the question we came to ask.

Aerial views of CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) farms. North Carolina, USA.

Jo immediately boarded a small plane and joined the Waterkeeper Alliance on a surveying mission to document the catastrophic damage from above. Many of the farms were almost completely submerged; shiny metal rectangles against brown flood water indicated that not only had the farms been severely damaged, but so had the toxic open-air waste lagoons dug next to them. These lagoons of effluent, referred to as “cesspools” by Rick Dove, founder of Waterkeeper Alliance, contain deadly concoctions of e. Coli, antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, and highly potent chemicals used to treat the waste itself. As we would come to find out, these contaminated waters would be responsible for the deaths of unimaginable numbers of surviving animals, including wildlife, in the weeks to come.

While Jo captured the magnitude of the damage from above, I stepped into my newly-purchased waders and set out with a local team in Duplin County to try to get as close to these flooded farms as possible. Photographer Daniel Turbert and local activist Caroline Byrd had spent the past few days out in the waters with animal rescue teams, attempting to locate any surviving animals. They arranged again for a boat to navigate us deep into the flood zone.

A small neighbourhood had been so severely flooded that the main street had turned into a sort of boat ramp for a handful of journalists and hired local guides. When it came time for us to launch into the water, we did not follow the other boats to the rows of houses but instead broke off to the left into what looked like a wide open lake.

I saw the bodies long before I saw any barn. Broiler chickens. Hundreds of them, bloated and floating gently in the brown standing water. Each pair of feet splayed wildly beneath them set off a new pang of panic in my chest imagining their final, terrifying moments. As we passed them, a putrid smell of rot and feces grew heavier in the air and I struggled to maintain my composure. The boat sprayed tiny drops of flood water on my camera and face as I filmed. At one point, our guide Shane cut the motor momentarily, mentioning casually that we were passing above a barbed wire fence. Giant barns loomed in the distance.

Industrial farm surrounded by flood water. North Carolina, USA.

Under normal circumstances, CAFOs are a frantic place: the whirring of industrial fans, the suffocating air, the panicked vocalizations from the sometimes tens of thousands of animals inside, and the fear and adrenaline of trying to document as much as possible without getting caught. But on this day, as we drifted through the rows of these half-submerged barns, we heard only haunting silence. Behind those locked doors was the sound and smell of death on an unimaginable scale.

 

Above: Abandoned CAFO barns.
Below Left: Drowned chickens in sludge.
Below Right: Pan of drowned chickens floating beside flooded CAFO barns

We followed the floating bodies like a trail until we found it, one door on one of the barns had been cracked off its hinges. Chickens and floating clumps of feces slowly drained out. We attempted to steer our boat as close as possible into this doorway and get our cameras inside, but it was pitch black inside the barn and the smell was so overpowering I worried I would faint and fall into the disease-ridden water. 

After getting what footage we could, we couldn’t bear to stay any longer; we decided to use whatever daylight we had left to find animals for whom help was not coming too late.

Meanwhile, the first of Jo’s aerial images were making their way into the media, sparking conversations about factory farming while all eyes were on North Carolina. New photos made space for new perspectives on the disaster; articles which would once have reported how much money or “units” of property lost by farmers were now phrasing the losses as “5,500 pigs” and “3.4 million chickens” dying in the floods. Visuals of decimated manure lagoons allowed publications to include a reference to the long-standing debate over the contamination risks of CAFOs, even in normal weather. Comments were appearing under these articles, asking questions like “why didn’t the farmers get these animals out?” and transformed into public dialogue over the massive size of factory farming and the impossibility of their rescue or even basic humane treatment. Animal perspectives were breaking free from the small activist pockets; increasingly, larger publications were sensing the scale of the story.

Horses take refuge on a raised porch, surrounded by flood waters. North Carolina, USA.
Photo: Kelly Guerin

It was nearing golden hour as our boat was sped further into the flood zone. The past few hours had taken us deep into the worst of the damage, through neighbourhoods where every home was submerged to its roof, past a giant farmhouse with horses huddled together on a front porch, and through an empty, cavernous turkey barn. Caroline and Daniel had been hearing rumors there was a pig farm upstream that had been hit badly by the hurricane and asked Shane if he could get us there before the sun went down. He navigated our small boat through a maze of trees and branches until we were traveling up a wide riverbed. When our path was blocked by a highway bridge, Caroline was determined to find a way around it, jumping out as we pulled the boat off to a side embankment. Soon, we heard her shout from the other side of the bridge, “pigs!”

At first, we saw only three of them collapsed and huddled together on the embankment. After walking the length of the bridge, however, we discovered more pockets, more individuals in various states of despair, until finally our count reached ten pigs. The elevated stretch of highway had created an island, bookended with knee-deep water rushing downstream. These animals had likely been out here since the storm with no clean water and no food. Without thinking, we grabbed what supplies we had brought in our small boat and began offering them to the animals: bottles of water, nuts, chips. I filmed as their frightened squeals subdued into soft grunts as they rooted for the first morsels of food they’d seen in days. Daniel livestreamed the discovery to a growing social media audience while Caroline was sending out the call to the few large animal rescue teams who might be near enough to help. We were on an unmarked road somewhere deep in the flash flood warning zone; the only marker we had to orient us was a large Chinquapin water tower protruding over the treeline. By some miracle – or, more likely, thanks to the typical tenacity of animal rescuers – we received word that a team with a trailer was not far and was en route to find us.
But the light was rapidly disappearing. Shane was getting worried about finding his way back through the flooded maze without lights on his boat. If there was to be any chance of rescue, we needed someone to meet the team and guide them through the ruined streets to this remote bridge. In the end, our group decided that Daniel and I would stay behind with the pigs to continue documenting their story and, hopefully, imminent rescue. It was a decision which simultaneously felt completely right and utterly terrifying. With only one remaining (mini) bottle of water and a few handfuls of nuts and chips between us, Daniel and I watched our little boat motor off down the river into the darkness and we braced ourselves for what would become a long and heartbreaking 24 hours.
It quickly became apparent the nearby team was not going to be able to reach us anytime soon. Flash flooding was still a present risk, wiping out roads and transforming the landscape minute by minute. The waters were writhing with deadly snakes and alligators looking for dry land and, as the sun dipped below the horizon, mosquitos came out in droves. Every so often, some floating debris would thump the bottom of the bridge or, worse, the bridge would let out a low groan on its own. It was a night of fear and the most raw vulnerability, and yet we were conscious that it was nothing compared to what these pigs had gone through. We had not been swept here in septic floodwaters during a raging storm. We did not watch our friends die. We had cell phones and knew people were coming to help us. We knew that we had a life to go back to once we were rescued. The pigs had none of this. Every passing hour brought with it a sense of urgency around seeing these animals rescued, or if that was impossible, to at least show the world that they existed.

Before long, the story of the activists stranded on a bridge with 10 surviving pigs was going viral. Daniel and I set ourselves on a schedule to do a headcount of the pigs and a livestream every two hours. A few dozen people grew to hundreds tuning into these updates, even at 2:00 a.m. in the morning. By the time the rescue efforts were called off until daylight at about 3:30 a.m., a community had formed around us and around these miracle pigs. Activists were contacting rescues, eventually finding permanent sanctuary homes for all ten of them. These updates added colour to an otherwise unknown future for these animals and we started to allow ourselves to imagine a happy ending to this story. We began to think about naming them.

Then another thump and groan would come from under the bridge, and I’d immediately snap back to our precarious reality. Nothing was certain and we still had such a long way to go.

Before long, the story of the activists stranded on a bridge with 10 surviving pigs was going viral. Daniel and I set ourselves on a schedule to do a headcount of the pigs and a livestream every two hours. A few dozen people grew to hundreds tuning into these updates, even at 2:00 a.m. in the morning. By the time the rescue efforts were called off until daylight at about 3:30 a.m., a community had formed around us and around these miracle pigs. Activists were contacting rescues, eventually finding permanent sanctuary homes for all ten of them. These updates added colour to an otherwise unknown future for these animals and we started to allow ourselves to imagine a happy ending to this story. We began to think about naming them.

Then another thump and groan would come from under the bridge, and I’d immediately snap back to our precarious reality. Nothing was certain and we still had such a long way to go.

Before long, the story of the activists stranded on a bridge with 10 surviving pigs was going viral. Daniel and I set ourselves on a schedule to do a headcount of the pigs and a livestream every two hours. A few dozen people grew to hundreds tuning into these updates, even at 2:00 a.m. in the morning. By the time the rescue efforts were called off until daylight at about 3:30 a.m., a community had formed around us and around these miracle pigs. Activists were contacting rescues, eventually finding permanent sanctuary homes for all ten of them. These updates added colour to an otherwise unknown future for these animals and we started to allow ourselves to imagine a happy ending to this story. We began to think about naming them.

Then another thump and groan would come from under the bridge, and I’d immediately snap back to our precarious reality. Nothing was certain and we still had such a long way to go.

Kelly Guerin on the bridge where she and Daniel spent the night. North Carolina, USA. Photo: Daniel Turbert

I breathed easier watching the sky begin to brighten just after 5:00 a.m. The mosquitos began to fade back into the damp and were replaced with the chirping of birds. Daniel and I got up off the grooved highway pavement and set out to opposite ends of the bridge for our first real look at some of these pigs since dusk the night before. I took some photos and video in the golden light and marvelled at how strangely serene the whole scene looked. If not for the flooded highway guard rails at the edges of the frame, the images almost looked like pigs gently sleeping together at a farm sanctuary.

As the pigs began to stir, one remained alone and shivering on the embankment. When she initially spotted me watching her, tried to get up, startled, but failed and collapsed back in the grass, still shivering. I wished more than anything for a blanket to put over her. Unable to comfort her, I went back to our pile of camera equipment and grabbed the last unopened bag of dried beans and inched close enough to sprinkle some salted beans close to this her nose. Her eyes fluttered open, she stretched her neck  and I watched her eat for the first time in four days. When she finished, she lay back down in the grass and closed her eyes, no longer shaking, As the sun warmed her, I allowed myself to believe that the worst might be over. Perhaps, in some way, this hurricane could be the best thing that would ever happen to her.

Daniel called to me and I joined him in the center of the bridge. He gestured downstream to a cluster of fallen tree branches that had created a sort of dam; something large was caught in the trees and bobbing in the water there. My heart stopped when I saw four legs sticking straight into the air.
“All those thumps under the bridge last night…” Daniel said.

That morning, Jo set out on boats with a team from Brother Wolf animal rescue to document CAFOs on the ground, capturing what would become iconic photos of chicken bodies washing up in neighbourhoods and surviving cows seeking refuge on front porches. The juxtaposition of farmed animals on top of residential homes amounted to rare moments that made visible how close these two worlds really existed and how destructive this relationship would continue to be in this era of climate change. Suddenly, the overwhelming death toll of farmed animals had a face.

Meanwhile, I was still stranded on pig island, scattering handfuls of dried edamame beans to a growing hoard of hungry, oinking pigs who had begun to follow me from one end of the bridge to the other. Our exhaustion turned into elation when we saw a truck and trailer come around the highway bend through feet of floodwater. Caroline had returned, along with co-founder of Ziggy’s Refuge Farm Sanctuary, Jay Yontz, and two rescuers from Brother Wolf. It felt like a miracle to be joined by the few people in the state who had the capacity, or the will, to rescue large farm animals. Few such attempts had been documented in Florence’s aftermath and I was grateful to be there with my camera.

The water levels were subsiding; we knew we had a fleeting window of opportunity to corral all 10 pigs onto the trailer before the roads cleared and others had access to this stretch of highway. Caroline had an idea of who the farmer might be and suspected he might be willing to relinquish the pigs once they were rescued, seeing as they had been exposed to highly contaminated waters and were unfit for human consumption. Unlike the stories of many pets pulled from flooded residences we had seen, we had no way of knowing if what we were doing would be perceived by the world as animal rescue or property theft. But here, deep in the heart of farming country, we had our suspicions.
It was a grueling morning. Though a few pigs went happily into the trailer once food was discovered, others were taking hours. Understandably, the pigs were frightened and would fight against the ropes, thrashing and splashing septic water wildly. The rescue team was utterly fearless and would wade precariously deep into the moving floodwaters to retrieve fleeing and stranded pigs. I kept my camera focused on the pigs as they swam through toxic water back to the highway embankment, barely keeping their heads above water. The shots I captured were so calm compared to how their initial swim through hurricane waters must have looked. There was no avoiding the reminders of how improbable their survival truly was and how so close they were to escaping once and for all.
Then, when four of the 10 pigs were in the trailer, we saw flashing lights.
What followed will come as no surprise to those who are familiar farmed animal issues. These moments stand in my memory like bullet points. Patterned. Emotionless. A step-by-step breakdown. The rescuers were told they were trespassing on the public highway. I was commanded to turn off my camera on the grounds that it was illegal to film an officer without his permission (it’s not). A man arrived who identified himself as the pigs’ owner and demanded the rescuers back their trailer up to his and return his property. The man insisted with contempt that just because the pigs had been in flood water did not mean they could not still be processed for food. In spite of offers and negotiations and pleading, he did not budge. When he maneuvered his trailer to back up to Jay’s, Caroline jumped inside with the pigs and held the door shut. An officer followed and attempted to force his way inside and, as he tried, Caroline opened the trailer’s side door and ushered the pigs to escape. Once we were no longer in possession of the pigs, officers angrily ordered us off the highway.
As we were carted off the bridge in the back of animal control’s pickup, we watched in teary silence as the pigs trotted away from the encroaching farmer and disappeared from sight over the arch. I remembered my girl laying by herself on the embankment, unable to run, and my heart broke knowing she would be the first to be caught.

As I’ve had to do many times before and will do many times again, I whispered to the animals, “I’m so sorry,” and left them behind.

 

I’ve since described our time documenting Hurricane Florence as “apocalyptic.” The stories Jo and I encountered that week were like stepping into a news article which forewarned the consequences of climate change if we do nothing to stop it. Before witnessing Florence, I think a part of me still believed that there had to be a point where we realized, “this has gone too far.” But it was clear over and over that that future has already arrived in some parts of the world, and yet still, we as a species choose not to make the connection. With cameras in hand, we drove through the state looking for stories that would bring that truth to light.
We met Elsie Herring, the great-granddaughter of a freed slave who became an environmental activist after a hog CAFO replaced the small family farm next door to her family’s property. The farm, like countless others around it, employed the standard industry practice of spraying manure on to fields as a waste disposal system. The spray drifted onto Elsie’s family home every day and soon, her family began experiencing serious health problems, such as respiratory and skin infections. As we sat on her front porch for our interview, the sprinklers kicked on and Elsie had to hold a paper towel over her mouth so she could continue to speak. We spoke at length about her experiences watching the farming in Duplin transform into the massive industry it is today and how it has impacted the lives of everyone around them. She spoke about the emerging understanding of environmental racism, that these colossal and toxic farms are often constructed strategically in poor communities of colour where residents have little political clout to raise in protest. And she emphasized, hauntingly, that the issues we were seeing post-Florence, in reality had little to do with hurricanes; for residents of Duplin county, this was life.
Top: Activist Elsie Herring, stands on the porch of her family home, holding a handkerchief over her mouth to filter out manure being sprayed on the field next door. 
Bottom Left: Manure being spryed on adjacent field
Bottom Right: Kelly Guerin conductiong an interview with Elsie Herring

View Elsie’s interview with We Animals Media.

The next day, Jo and I drove to a small family park in Wilmington where a fishkill had been reported. We grabbed our cameras, stepped out of the car, and walked to the edge of a small lake. At first, we could only see about a few dozen fish floating motionless on top of the putrid, oily water. But then, to our horror, we discovered thousands more bodies clustered throughout various parts of the lake. Their faces were frozen in shared expressions of agony, mouths wide open as if gasping for oxygen and eyes grotesquely bulged out from their skulls.
Fishkills are common after flooding; when sediment and deoxidizing bacteria runoff are swept en masse into freshwater sources, such as this pond, oxygen levels plummet and the fish trapped inside die a slow, excruciating death by suffocation. Officials maintain that fishkills occur solely due to flooding, but what in the water was responsible is an open question. Waterkeeper Alliance founder Rick Dove offered his perspective:
“Could be toxins, biological oxygen demand [BOD], low oxygen from the floodwaters themselves – only sampling will answer the question.  If you are wondering if swine and poultry waste could be responsible in whole or part, the answer is yes. That waste is extremely high in BOD. It has killed massive numbers of fish based on that before.”
Above and Left: Dead fish in Green Field Park floodwaters after Hurricane Florence.
Below: Patrick Connell, a member of Waterkeeper Alliance, checks for contaminants in a river affected by Hurricane Florence. North Carolina, USA.

As we were capturing images of the dead fish, we were joined by Roxanne, a local animal activist. She ushered us to one enclave of the pond where there was a large concrete overflow pipe trickling the smallest amount of clear water into the brown sludge and massive cluster of rotting fish bodies. In front of this pipe opening were the last surviving fish in the lake, straining lethargically against the slight current of oxygen. If these were other animals, we could have pulled them out. But because they were fish, we watched helplessly. Every so often, a fish would give up the struggle, stop swimming, and succumb backwards into the pile of floating bodies.

For this brief window of time, the barriers separating us from the consequences of our choices were broken down and the dark underbelly of our world was exposed. Climate change was no longer a line graph or a warning for future generations, it was a massive hurricane decimating neighbourhoods and drowning animals by the millions. The toxic waste produced at our power plants and factory farms were no longer contained as we had been assured they always would be, it had been spilled easily by floods with power we had underestimated, killing millions of fish and rendering water undrinkable. The animals who are strategically hidden away, warehoused in CAFOs, were now washed up, dead and alive, on our front porches where we could see their faces.
It is our job, as photojournalists and documentarians, to ensure that these stories are understood, to continue to challenge the narrow perspectives of our human world, and to make visible what was once unseen.

Story and video by Kelly Guerin. All images by Jo-Anne McArthur except where noted. 

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