raceAhead: Waiting On Hurricane Florence

September 12, 2018, 6:35 PM UTC

Storms are terrible things, and it looks like a monster is heading for the mid-Atlantic Coast.

Those in the know look to Waffle House for a guiding light. The 24/7 eatery has become known in storm circles for their Waffle House Index, a quasi-informal assessment of potential damage and local infrastructure vulnerabilities which they use to predict which stores can safely remain open. It’s even monitored by FEMA.

When Waffle House announces it will pre-emptively close a store in the path of a storm, the index has just gone to red. FiveThirtyEight puts it succinctly: If Waffle House closes, it’s time to panic.

The Waffle House storm center is activated and watching, the index for the region mostly green at press time. “Plan ahead and be safe #Florence,” they tweeted.

Despite President Trump’s glowing self-assessment of the government’s performance in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, there is plenty to be worried about. There are more than 750,000 homes in the path of the storm. If Florence delivers its deadly promise, property damage could reach $170 billion, according to real estate data company CoreLogic.

And then there are the pigs.

Hurricane Florence is on course to kill thousands of farm animals and trigger catastrophic waste spills across the entire region. It’s happened before.

North Carolina ranks third in the U.S. in poultry production and second in hog production, with more than 2,000 permitted swine farms and 9.3 million pigs. Their waste is held in marshy pits called lagoons and is used to spray on nearby fields. But even a little extra rain is a recipe for disaster. “It’s been a wet summer. Five weeks of almost continuous rain,” hog farmer Tom Butler told the News Observer. “I have covered lagoons. I can’t imagine guys with open lagoons.”

(Of course, the feces-rich pig business is a dirty one in any weather, the subject of much litigation, investigation, and reporting. Because the farms are situated near primarily low-income, African American rural communities, there have been longstanding charges of environmental racism, as well.)

North Carolina’s agricultural economy provides one-fifth of all jobs in the region and a lot of food to the rest of us. The majority of the farms have been told to expect at least two feet of rain, but even half that is problematic. “A majority of the crops are still in the field,” Mike Yoder, coordinator of emergency programs for the NC State Extension told The Washington Post. “[A]nd those guys will probably suffer as much or more as the livestock industry.”

In some situations, it seems, it’s a coin toss as to the safest course of action.

Thousands of incarcerated people, guards and staff will be forced to stay behind in evacuation zones in South Carolina and Virginia. (Things did not go well for incarcerated men in the Stiles Unit, a Texas state prison during Hurricane Harvey.)

Oh, and it looks like the climate change nonsense talk that’s been coming from lawmakers in the region is not aging well.

If the worst case scenario plays out, we will soon be awash with stories, some of the inspiring-true kind, but most of the hopeless variety: The newly unemployed, the desperately underinsured, the permanently displaced, the abandoned vulnerables, the GoFundMes for things that a wealthy nation should already know how to provide.

But for now, as they batten and flee, we pray to the higher power of our choice for the best possible ending. Good luck, everyone.

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We sat in the open attic until the sky brightened from a sick orange to a clean white gray. We sat in the open attic until the water, which had milled like a boiling soup beneath us, receded inch by inch, back into the woods.... We were a pile of wet, cold branches, human debris in the middle of all of the rest of it.
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