ELLIOT: During a disaster, help or get out of the way

Flood waters from the rising Tar River reach a road sign in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew

Twenty-six North Carolinians are dead. More than 100,000 homes and buildings are damaged. A third of the state is a federally declared disaster area. Hurricane Matthew, dumping a foot of rain on North Carolina, walloped the Tarheel State. [UPDATE: See note below.]President Barack Obama and Gov. Pat McCrory both deserve praise for the federal and state-level emergency response, which performed well. McCrory may not be very adept at handling political contretemps, but he once again demonstrated what kind of crisis management actually matters in a governor.Sadly, not everyone put politics aside during the flooding.Down east, homes were destroyed and lives turned upside down. Entire communities will need to be resurrected. But what did environmentalist groups focus on? Coal ash and hog lagoons. A small coal ash spill into the Neuse River released what was described as enough coal ash to fill a pickup truck. As for hog farms, less than 1 percent of them flooded and only one waste lagoon breached its dikes. But environmentalist groups — especially Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s New York City-based Waterkeeper Alliance — used a massive humanitarian and ecological disaster to advance their favored political messaging anyway.The group’s selective focus might be understandable if those were the worst environmental problems we face. But while the coal ash and hog waste systems largely performed as designed, municipal waste systems did not. As of this writing, raw sewage spills reported to the state numbered 224. The estimated volume — which will certainly increase as more incidents are reported — was 55,368,137 gallons of untreated municipal waste released into the environment [UPDATE: See note below.]. To recap: one lagoon breach versus 224 sewage spills; less than 1,000 gallons of coal ash versus 55 million gallons of untreated human waste.It gets worse. To bolster their alarmism, the Waterkeepers released photographs claiming to show a hog farm in Greene County inundated by floodwaters. There was only one problem: the photo actually showed the Town of Hookerton’s wastewater treatment plant. So instead of focusing on real environmental problems, the Waterkeeper sold the misinformation on up the river to the Washington Post, which dutifully ran with it in a breathless article titled “Factory farming practices are under scrutiny again in N.C. after disastrous hurricane floods.”Certainly, it’s bad that some hog waste was released into the floodwaters. But considering the volume of human sewage spilled, it’s dead certain that floodwaters would be polluted even if nary a sow called the state home.Moreover, the Waterkeeper group doesn’t want you to know that flooding events in the past have had mixed environmental effects. While smaller floods have resulted in fish kills and other problems, the flood most like Matthew, the Floyd disaster of 1999, was followed by no unusual fish kills and record shrimp and crab harvests. That seems counter-intuitive, but better dilution could be the reason. To put it in perspective, at one point on Oct. 12, the Neuse River at Kinston — two days before it crested — was flowing at an average volume of more than 11 million gallons per minute, or more than 16 billion gallons for the day. And the Neuse is just one of the four major river basins that absorbed the sewage.It would be good if the Waterkeepers would focus on our highest priority problems, rather than the ones on which they can raise the most money and influence the most elections.North Carolina is suffering enough. Everyone else should either help or get out of the way.(Author’s note: After this article was first published, the confirmed death toll rose to 27 in North Carolina. Also, the number of raw sewerage overflow events has risen to 255, with an estimated volume of 63,965,706 gallons released to surface waters. That volume is expected to continue to rise as reports are filed.)