From the air, it's obvious what eastern North Carolina is up against.
New rooflines emerge from swollen creeks and rivers each day as flood waters recede. The outlines of the local airport's runways are just now visible, as are LearJets that have been submerged for more than a week.
But as the long-term recovery effort here finds its pace this week, it is the unseen threat contained in the coffee-colored waters that public-health officials are most concerned about.
During the past week and a half of flooding, waters have swept a wide range of contaminants downstream. Gasoline from cars and underground fuel tanks, animal waste from hog operations, and perhaps even residues from two Superfund sites have congealed into a noxious brew of muck and mud.
In the end, officials don't expect an environmental cataclysm - many of these contaminants tend to degrade quickly and have short half lives. But the polluted soup remains dangerous until the residue degrades or evaporates, public-health officials say, and they are working to keep residents clear until they better know the scope of the damage.
"This is a public-health threat ... before it's an environmental threat," says A. Robert Rubin of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service.
Mr. Rubin, a waste-management expert, points to the myriad sources of contamination. In the 18,000-square-mile area, factories, junkyards, sewage-treatment facilities, and hog lagoons (which collect and process waste) were overrun.
Moreover, a variety of chemicals - pesticides and herbicides from industrial parks, warehouses, and farm storage sites - have all been dispersed into the open water. Petroleum from leaking underground fuel tanks left colorful streaks in the surging waters.
Now, all these impurities are settling into the ground.
"We've had a large number of automobiles that were abandoned that are still in the water," says Lisa Schell, spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Environmental and Natural Resources. "Think about all of the oil and gasoline seeping from them."
"I've heard several reports of folks going to gas stations, and when they turn on the nozzle, water is coming out," she adds. "You've got to figure that the gas has somehow leached out into the ground water."
Keeping this contaminated water out of area drinking water has already proved difficult. Hazardous-materials specialists are examining at least two dozen water-treatment plants for contamination.
Checking it twice
They're also checking the integrity of water mains. At least 400,000 wells may have been compromised.
"Our health department officials are checking out all the major districts," says Wayne Aycock, president of the Fireman's Association in Greenville. "The key is finding out what's there."
The good news, say waste experts, is that much of the runoff pollutants are expected to degrade quickly. In addition, some of the residue in residential areas can be treated with common neutralizers, including lime.
And as water-treatment plants are checked out and come back on line, standard filtration methods are expected to remove contaminants.
But it's been hard to keep residents who are eager to reenter their homes and neighborhoods away from the sludge.
State officials are urging residents to minimize contact with flood waters and sediment.
The sheer scope of the floods has created problems, too. It's been difficult for local officials to determine what kinds of chemicals are present in the most contaminated areas.
"We've [never] had to deal with the environmental problems with such flooding," says John Spurrell, environmental policy analyst for the North Carolina League of Municipalities.
Officials are also still trying to contain the solid waste swept up by the flood.
More than 3 million hogs, chickens, and turkeys perished, as well as cattle, horses, and various wildlife. The state has moved in three portable incinerators that are capable of reducing two tons of animal remains to ash in an hour.
Finding enough landfill space for the all the solid waste, though, will present still more problems for the region.
Impact on the ocean
On the eastern seaboard, the deluge of fresh water may also have an effect on sea life as it dumps into the ocean.
State officials say they are expecting so-called dead zones, where the sediment and runoff from farms choke the oxygen in the water, killing fish. Coastal shrimp and blue crab fisheries are most at risk.
"We're carefully monitoring the quality of water in our rivers, watching as that water gets down to the ocean and our estuaries," says spokeswoman Schell.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society