It's officially Atlantic hurricane season and an above-normal activity is expected in 2020, according to forecasters with the Nationtal Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center, a division of the National Weather Service. The outlook predicts a 60% chance of an above-normal season, a 30% chance of a near-normal season and only a 10% chance of a below-normal season. The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 through Nov. 30.
Back in February, and before COVID-19, we covered how natural disasters, such as hurricanes, can have an impact on pork production systems and why it is crucial to have an emergency response plan in place before the storm hits. Here's a look back at the lessons one North Carolina veterinarian has learned over several hurricane seasons.
Emily Byers will be the first to admit North Carolina really only has three seasons: winter, summer and hurricane season. And with the potential for storms to hit the Atlantic Coast from June 1 to Nov. 30 each year, the season is always concerning for the state's pork production systems that reside in "hurricane lane."
"One of the things that I love about North Carolina is that although we are major business competitors, when it comes to natural disasters and other disasters, we help each other," Byers says. "We put our business differences aside, and we help each other. If you've got a farm that you can't get to, but I can, I'll bring feed to you — and you would do the same for me."
A veterinarian for Prestage Farms in Clinton, N.C., for the last three years, and prior to that with Smithfield Foods' East Central Region, Byers has seen her share of hurricanes.
While the industry always remembers Hurricane Floyd in 1999 for the damage it did to North Carolina's pork production reputation, the state's producers walked away from the disaster with many lessons learned. In fact, by the time Hurricane Florence hit — with more water, rain and flooding than hurricanes Floyd and Matthew combined — they were ready.
According to a blog from the North Carolina Pork Council, there were "eight inundations, 28 overflows due to rainwater that entered the lagoon, only three breaches and only about 5,500 animal mortalities."
"This was the worst storm in the history of the state, and we are very proud of the lessons that we've learned and how we've been able to plan and respond and minimize losses in these devastating events," Byers says. "Then Dorian — zero lagoons flood, zero lagoon breaches and zero mortality. More than 98% of the industry's anaerobic treatment lagoons did not have negative impacts from Hurricane Matthew and Hurricane Florence, both record storms for the state."
What has been the key to the producers' success in minimizing damage from the storms? Byers says it's preparedness, and one of the few positives from a hurricane is that producers do have some warning.
"Every hog farmer, every veterinarian, every production specialist becomes a meteorologist, and you're looking at these diagrams and computer-generated models of what the storm may do. Initially, it's not very predictable, and the models get kind of crazy; but over time they start lining up, and you get a very good idea of where the storm's going," Byers says.
That's when you proactively start "hauling butt — and there is a pun intended there, because you move pigs," she says. Prior to Hurricane Florence, more than 20,000 pigs in flood-prone or risk areas were either shipped off early to market or evacuated to other locations.
After the pig hauling, making feed and delivering as much feed as possible to the farms is crucial, as well as ensuring that each farm has enough supplies and semen for a week. Generators and alarm systems are tested again and again, and fuel supplies, extra filters, hoses, belts and oil for generators and tractors are gathered.
Heavy equipment and trailers are staged. "If you can't get across a road, you've got to have fuel trailers and heavy equipment to repair roads staged," Byers says. "Multiple companies in North Carolina have their own equipment specifically for these purposes, so we start getting it out and staging it on certain sides of the rivers to make sure we have access to it."
Calls and communication
Calls are initiated internally within each pork production system's incident command system, and then externally with the state's department of agriculture and emergency operations center. Byers says those calls start ahead of the storm and continue throughout the storm and into recovery.
"You start testing your mapping and communication systems, making sure they're functioning properly; you communicate hurricane mode plans to farms," Byers says. "Then what's really important, in the post-Floyd era, is this proactive communication and media outreach, and we leave that up to the North Carolina Pork Council. It's very important the role that they play on our behalf."
Mortality management plans need to be reviewed and landfills need to be contacted to make sure a manifest is set up ahead of time, and the landfills will accept any mortalities. It's also important to secure and renew disaster reentry permits, Byers says.
"In the face of a natural disaster like this, state patrol officers typically come from other parts of the state that don't know your business, and they don't know what you do. They don't know the economic impact and the necessary path that you need to take to get into farms," Byers says. "We have some provisions in our state that give us permissions and special permits to pass through road closures, and so we make sure that those permits are good to go."
The veterinarian also advises securing internet servers and making communication plans in advance, in case of cellular and internet outages from the storm.
Once the storm starts to close in, Byers says that's when the state's pork production systems go into "hurricane mode." All service vehicles are filled with fuel. Loose items around the buildings are secured. Chutes are lowered, and feed bin lids are tied down. Door charts and farrowing cards are removed from barns, and curtains are lowered.
Fan louvers are either removed or secured, and fan blades are tied down or secured. "In a hurricane, the wind will blow — and typically, those fan blades will turn in reverse, which will burn up your motors; and then they won't function when power comes back on," Byers says.
Liquefied petroleum gas needs to be cut off. Cool-cell pads are removed, and open doors and baffles tied down. Prior to a storm, feed also needs to be cut off to empty feeders.
"When feed gets wet, it clogs the system, so you need the pigs to eat that feed out until you're able to get back and run the feed systems — and that's primarily in grow-finish," Byers says. "Then, on sow farms, you prepare to ration-feed, because you don't know how long it's going to be before you can get in there. Everything gets feed. They may not get their full amount, but they get feed."
After those preparations, evacuation comes next. At Prestage Farms, all personnel are required to leave, and they're not allowed to return to the farms until it's designated as safe. Driving in the dark is not allowed, and all hauling of pigs, feed and equipment is stopped.
While company employees are not allowed to stay on farms, contract growers often stay on their farms, sacrificing time with family during a disaster to ensure the pigs are safe.
"One of the things that you have to prepare for is, this could last hours or it could last days," Byers says. "In Florence, we saw it lasted days."
Return and respond
As soon as it is safe, Byers says it is important to return to the farm as soon as possible to assess the situation. However, sometimes getting to farms can be very difficult, and can take creativity. During Hurricane Florence, some North Carolina producers used helicopters.
Farm and road conditions need to be reported back to the incident command system. Company statuses and needs must be communicated back to the agriculture emergency operations command center.
During Hurricane Florence, getting to farms to deliver feed was also a challenge, requiring creativity — and also sometimes taking risks.
"One of the companies took a feed truck, unloaded feed into the front-end loader of the tractor, and then it went back and forth to try to get feed to the pigs," Byers says.
One thing Hurricane Florence taught North Carolina swine producers was that you can't prepare for the humanitarian crisis. "A lot of our employees are very involved in the community as volunteer, fire, EMS, water rescue teams, so they're going to be needed and pulled into those rescue systems," Byers says.
"You'll have employees that are unable to come to work, don't have money to come to work, don't have fuel to come to work, don't have food. That was a big one in Florence. Some people went days with little to no food, because they didn't have the luxury of going out and buying a couple hundred dollars' worth of dry goods to last them for a few days. After the storm hit, even availability in remote grocery stores was extremely limited, because their remaining food items either perished, or they were unable to receive deliveries for a few days," she says.
Whether it's a weather-related disaster or a foreign animal disease disaster (or a supply chain disruption due to a human pandemic such as COVID-19), Byers says it's important to note that every day a plant is down, it costs at least three days everywhere else in the system. Business must continue.
"We are in a 'just in time' business," Byers says. "To think about this in terms of a national standstill, what that would look like — it could take months to get back to normal."
Robust preparation is key for any disaster management, as are backup and contingency plans. However, Byers says incident command is also extremely important and will be required in a disaster situation.
"This is internal. And then in your cooperation within your states, you've got to have generals versus soldiers. You've got to have key people in place to make decisions and then authorize others to make decisions," Byers says. "If people have not had incident command training, I highly recommend it. In a disaster preparation plan, you're going to have to have an 'all hands on deck' — and there is absolutely no room for 'That's not my job.'"
Byers says trust also needs to be established beforehand. That means making sure the industry has a seat at the table with the state veterinarian's office and agriculture emergency operations center.
"We have a North Carolina swine emergency response team, and every company has production and veterinary representation at that table," Byers says. "It is very important in our state, and I would encourage other states to do the same."
She also recommends that proactive media communication should always be part of your disaster plan.
Finally, relating natural disaster plans and thinking in terms of FAD planning, "don't get caught by surprise," Byers says. "Hurricane Floyd taught us that: Do not get caught by surprise. You will lose. You've got to have a plan."