I’m still new to the idea of hurricanes because I grew up in the Midwest. Yes, I’ve lived through countless blizzards, ice storms and the occasional tornado, but never hurricanes. Now, living in North Carolina, hurricane season has become a very real part of my life.

In mid-September, Hurricane Florence made its way inland along the coast of North Carolina, after reaching Category 4 hurricane status just days before landfall. With some luck, Hurricane Florence weakened a bit prior to landfall, and the expected wind and rainfall originally anticipated would be significantly less than predicted. As I learned, however, it is not just the fallen trees and flying debris that are dangerous during a hurricane. Flooding is often more devastating than the wind and flying debris. This is the part of hurricanes that make them so terrifyingly unpredictable, particularly for the agriculture industry.

One week after Hurricane Florence had moved on, a staggering 3.4 million birds and 5,500 hogs were reported as collateral damage from the disaster. Although these numbers seem astonishingly high, when analyzed based on North Carolina’s bird populations of 33.5 million turkeys and 819 million broilers, the loss statewide was 0.40 percent of all the birds in the state. In addition, with a state population of 9.3 million hogs, the death toll was 0.06 percent. These values were calculated prior to all major rivers cresting. Additional animals were expected to be lost within the weeks to come as cleanup crews advance and flooded areas recede.

Modern weather forecasting technology delivers invaluable information regarding major disasters in days rather than hours, which help us prepare for storms. These insights allow us in agriculture to get our market animals to the harvest facility before a catastrophe and the crops off the field before the flood. This also helps us prepare by securing barn curtains, reinforcing gates, filling feed bins and checking generator function in case of power outages to ensure as little change as possible. Although an extremely useful tool at times, the Internet as a primary source to manage storm damage is less than ideal. In a plethora of hacks and solutions for solving problems for anything imaginable, when it is related to livestock management during natural disasters, using the correct tools is crucial. 

The care of livestock and poultry doesn’t stop for a hurricane. Animal care must continue before, during and after the disaster. Every producer must have an emergency plan before a natural disaster strikes, including the resources to carry it out. Being prepared is only part of the battle. Hurdles will appear in places you’ve never expected. If power outages occur, a generator will only be good until the fuel runs out. If roads are closed, a feed bin will be of use only until it empties. Phone communication with others may not be possible for days.

It can be terrifying navigating your own land post-hurricane and the scenarios are endless. Do you trust that there are no downed power lines near your barns? How will you get into a facility that is flooded? How will you get in contact with others for help?

The idea to evacuate animals off-site might sound logical, but logistically, it is more often than not a losing proposition.

Another idea often mentioned would be to release the domesticated animals back into the wild environment, but that wouldn’t work either. These animals have had no experience with predators, environmental factors, diseases, foraging, social hierarchy disruption and areas lacking in proper food sources could factor into their survival. Hogs can become feral at a shocking fast rate when released into the wild and may be able to live off the land without a problem.

Additionally, imagine the safety risk on the highways. Imagine hitting a market-weight hog at highway speeds. Good luck explaining that to the car insurance company. Speaking of insurance, if these animals were set free, how would a producer explain that to the insurance company? How will they determine who gets paid and how much if they do not have a head count of animals lost in the disaster? Who knows what other repercussions would occur if these animals migrate into towns?

So what to do? First, prioritize your own safety because if you’re not around, no one will likely know to care for your animals. Read your state’s emergency procedures and regulations before a disaster hits. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the state’s department of agriculture and university extension personnel are great resources for determining how to prepare and the motions needed in the aftermath. Secure belongings and have provisions ready for during and after the storm. Emergency services are there to help you get back in business and be patient during recovery.

We cannot be prepared for everything — the unpredictable occurring is a certainty. We can do our best to be ready and plan ahead to minimize the impact of a natural disaster and be prepared as we hunker down for the next storm. NP