Just inland from the North Carolina coast, right in the path of Hurricane Florence, there's an area where there are many more pigs than people. Each big hog farm has one or more open-air "lagoons" filled with manure, and some could be vulnerable to flooding if the hurricane brings as much rain as feared.
Katy Langley lives downstream from many of those farms. "When you fly over the area, you can't throw a rock without hitting one," she says. "You see these long barns and these square shapes that are Pepto Bismol pink, because swine waste is bright pink. Fun fact of the day!"
It's actually bacteria, feeding on the waste, that turn the ponds pink. These lagoons are like a pile of compost. They're a cheap way to handle animal waste.
But for Langley, the lagoons are a threat. She works for an environmentalist organization called Sound Rivers, and she's specifically assigned to protect the Neuse River. With thousands of those lagoons just sitting there, open to the weather, with a Category 4 hurricane on the way, Langley is worried that a whole lot of manure is going to wash into the rivers.
Farmers are worried, too.
"We're probably going to get hit on the nose with this, so flooding's our biggest concern," says Marlowe Vaughan of Ivy Spring Creek Farm in Goldsboro, N.C.
The hog houses themselves are safe from flooding, she says, but paths leading to them could be flooded, so that workers will have to get to them by boat.
On her farm, they're spending part of the day pumping liquid waste out of their lagoons, spraying it as fertilizer on nearby fields, so there's more room for incoming rainfall.
Experts at North Carolina State University say that if farmers manage to do this ahead of the hurricane, lagoons should be able to handle almost three feet of rain.
But these facilities haven't ever been forced to accommodate that much rain. I ask Vaughan if the ponds really could handle such a deluge.
"We don't really know," she says. "I mean, we try to pump down as much as we can, but after that, it's kind of in God's hands. We're kind of at the mercy of the storm."
Here's the really bad scenario: Water starts overflowing and erodes the lagoon wall, causing a wall to collapse, spreading animal waste across the landscape and into rivers.
Rising rivers could also inundate some low-lying lagoons and hog houses. About 60 of them lie within what the state of North Carolina considers the 100-year-flood plain. Animals in those houses may need to be evacuated for the flood waters rise.
There used to be more swine in the flood plain, but after Hurricane Floyd, in 1999, the state bought out some hog farmers in low-lying areas and shut them down.
Some lagoons flooded again during Hurricane Matthew, two years ago, but lagoon walls didn't collapse.
But Vaughan says, history may not be a guide. It sounds like Florence could be worse. "We really just don't know," she says. "We have no idea what's going to happen. So everybody's very worried and very concerned. Please pray for us!"
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Right in the path of Hurricane Florence, there's an area where pigs far outnumber people. A big worry is the state of hundreds of open-air lagoons filled with manure. Torrential rain could cause them to overflow. Here's NPR's Dan Charles.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Katy Langley lives on the North Carolina coast downstream from a bunch of hog farms, and she thinks about them a lot.
KATY LANGLEY: When you fly over the area, I mean, you can't throw a rock without hitting one.
CHARLES: She works for an environmentalist organization, Sound Rivers.
LANGLEY: You just see these long barns and these big square shapes that looks like Pepto-Bismol pink because swine waste is bright pink - fun fact of the day.
CHARLES: Actually, it's bacteria feeding on the waste that turn the ponds pink. Those lagoons are a little bit like compost piles. It's a cheap way to handle manure, but they're just sitting there open to the weather, thousands of them, with a Category 4 hurricane coming. Langley is worried that a lot of manure is going to end up in the rivers. Farmers are worried, too, like Marlowe Vaughan in Goldsboro, N.C.
MARLOWE VAUGHAN: We're going to probably get, you know, hit on the nose with this, and flooding is our biggest concern.
CHARLES: They spent part of the day on her farm pumping liquid waste out of their lagoons, spraying it as fertilizer on nearby fields so there's more room for rain from Florence. If farmers are doing this, the lagoons should be able to handle almost three feet of rain. But they've never actually had to deal with that much.
I mean, if you got two or three feet of rain, would that flood the lagoon?
VAUGHAN: We don't really know. I mean, we try to pump down as much as we can, but, you know, after that, it's kind of in God's hands. I mean, we're kind of at the mercy of the storm.
CHARLES: Here's the really bad scenario - water starts overflowing, erodes the lagoon walls and the walls collapse, spreading animal waste across the landscape and into rivers. Some lagoons and hog houses could also be inundated by rising rivers. About 60 of them lie within what the state considers the 100-year flood plain. Vaughan's seen other hurricanes. The farm's come through OK, but she says it sounds like Florence could be worse.
VAUGHAN: Well, we really just don't know. We have no idea what's going to happen. But everybody's very, very, very worried and very concerned, so please pray for us (laughter).
CHARLES: Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.