As floodwaters slowly recede and people exiled from the coast by drowned roadways make their way back home, we stand in our brush-lined streets, left to wonder what it all meant.
Our lives, regardless of class or wealth, have all been jostled by Hurricane Florence. For some lucky people, whose houses emerged without a scratch, it was a “hurrication,” as my downstairs neighbor put it. For others, who lost everything, the joke rings hollow as they stare at their naked rafters. Or the high-water bath ring on their living room wall. Or ponder when the hell they’ll get back power. All of us have wondered—or at least, I sure have—when things will start to resemble “normalcy.” As I jotted down in my notebook during the storm, “normal” seems a long way off.
Hurricanes have a way of giving our lives scale, perspective. How small we all are, compared to the incredible, sublime force of Mother Nature. As individuals, it’s hard to imagine how we can have any effect on something as strong as the natural power that spun up those 100-plus-mile-per-hour winds, which uprooted trees, bent street signs and made Wilmington a proper island for a week. If climate science can teach us anything, it’s we can—and do—have effects on the planet we call home. Our emission of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere has and will continue to intensify tropical cyclones in both power and frequency; it’s an effect of raising the atmospheric temperature by 2 degrees Celsius from preindustrial levels. Unfortunately, we can expect it to continue unless something drastic happens—and soon.
The optimist in me says there’s still time for a solar and wind revolution, for lowering our collective carbon footprint. The realist in me shakes his head grimly: not on the path we’re currently heading down.
There are other ways we affect our planet, and they’re easier to see than a slow and gradual temperature rise. Our messy habits have come home to roost. Those of us who have ever eaten bacon or flipped on a light switch connected to Duke Energy can accept blame, too. I’m not excluding myself as I stand here, pulled-pork sandwich in hand and fully illuminated; we’re all partly guilty for a whole lot of nasty, toxic shit (quite literally, I’m afraid) that has ended up in the floodwaters inundating us..
Let’s look at the numbers:
After the storm, at least 2,000 cubic yards of coal ash (enough to fill 150 dump trucks per The Washington Post), and the untreated urine and feces from 43 hog lagoons have leaped over the low brims which keep them in check. Mingled with all the rain we’ve gotten, it’s now sloshing around down by our ankles and heading toward the sea. It has led to remarkable sights: dead fish strewn across the newly-dry expanse of Highway 40, or forming a corpse cofferdam around the ring of Greenfield Lake, choked out in their own waters by a super-low dissolved oxygen content because of fecal-matter-driven eutrophication. The silvery sludge from the Sutton Power Plant, now pouring like a gossamer waterfall over the thin earthen dam and into the Cape Fear River,contains God-knows-how-much toxic coal ash, meaning arsenic, selenium and other heavy metals. The satellite photo of our coast from Cape Lookout to Topsail Beach shows the brown blossoms of human pollution pouring into the crystal blue of our ocean.
Well, what the hell did we expect?
It’s not like we didn’t know such problems existed. It’s not even news—or at least it’s not in Wilmington, the last stop on the toilet train before the ocean. Our local environmental advocacy groups like Cape Fear River Watch have been outspoken on such issues for years. The have taken the good fight to companies responsible for creating the problems. It’s not the first clash with Duke Energy. It’s not the first time CAFOs have spilled untreated sewage in our drinking water. It’s not even the first time the spills have happened because of hurricane flooding. We knew about the problems long before the GenX crisis last year, which rallied many in our town behind the “radical” notion of clean drinking water.
Despite knowing about it all, nothing happened. The companies kept operating, didn’t clean up, left their waste in a floodplain for the rest of us downstream to deal with. And here we are.
Over 2,000 years ago, a wise man named Socrates said to know the good is to do the good. Today that means knowing about such problems should directly relate to cleaning them. Another philosopher named Aristotle pointed out people might fail to do good due to weakness of will—laziness, cowardice, the many human failings of our species.
Well, toughen up, buttercup: We can’t afford to be weak any longer.
As anthropogenic climate change continues to exacerbate the effects of storms like Florence, our problems will only get worse in the future. They may even be our undoing as a species. If we don’t change something soon, the epitaph of the human race will be “They Committed Suicide By Greed.”
Another ancient thinker worth mentioning is Archimedes. If enough of us push against Duke and Smithfield/the W.H. Group with the “long arm of the law,” we can gain the advantage. But we have to push—and push hard. It’s time to start taking some responsibility as consumers, as citizens—this is our state, after all. We must stop requesting and start demanding the cleanup. If not now, when the evidence is right here in our faces and around our feet, when? How many more hurricanes will it take for us to make the connection of carbon emitted by burning fossil fuels and the methane emitted by factory farms are huge contributors to climate change? Not to mention the solid byproducts borne of these processes are poisoning us here and now?
We must do the hard work of an informed electorate and vote for people who know our town’s environmental issues first and foremost. We must support candidates who oppose corporations contaminating our water. We should write and call our representatives who already hold office, remind them exactly who they work for: us—not corporate interests. Tell them if they don’t bring the fight to the companies, we’ll vote ‘em out. Nothing terrifies a politician more than a motivated constituency. While we’re at it, we should publicly protest and stop consuming products of corporations of swine and coal scum (although there’s not a whole lot of choice with Duke—aren’t monopolies wonderful?). They are what they produce.
If normal is a state where hog farms and coal-ash pits lie wide open in flood plains, we shouldn’t go back there. If we do, and nothing changes, the real tragedy to come out of the storm won’t be the flooding, or the power outages, or the displaced and homeless families, or the lost ghosts of the beautiful trees. The biggest disaster will be North Carolina—a state consisting of free people—remained complacent and inactive in solving the problems right under our noses (can’t you smell it?). We stand here in the knowledge of their existence, facing firsthand the aftermath of their effects. Now, not in November, is the time to be thinking about your vote.