Hurricane Florence’s track is ‘much like Fran’ -- one of NC’s worst storms ever

Some storm-watchers are worried that Hurricane Florence may have more in common with 1996’s Hurricane Fran than the first letter of its name.

Fran, one of the most devastating storms to hit North Carolina, tracked across the Atlantic in 1996 in a path that bears a strong resemblance to ones that some forecasting models are predicting for Florence. As of Sunday, the National Weather Service said the most likely scenario has Hurricane Florence on a northwesterly trajectory that would bring it ashore near Wilmington on Thursday night.

With several days to ponder what Florence might do on its way across the ocean, those who lived through Fran may be remembering that it, too, was a nighttime arrival, landing at Cape Fear, near Wilmington, at 8:30 p.m. on Sept. 5, 1996. It came in with 115 mph winds and generated a 12-foot storm tide.

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Once on shore, Hurricane Fran traveled north-northwest deep into the state, hitting Raleigh with wind gusts up to 79 mph, toppling century-old trees that fell on houses and brought down power and telephone lines. The storm continued to cause damage as it rolled through Durham and Person counties before leaving the state and crossing into Virginia.

Hurricane Fran was blamed for 24 deaths in North Carolina and more than $7 billion worth of damage in 1996 dollars. It destroyed or damaged homes and infrastructure, leveled crops in the field, downed millions of dollars worth of timber and forced businesses to close.

A 1996 photo shows an view homes destroyed by Hurricane Fran on Topsail Island. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

Fran was the last Category 3 hurricane to make landfall in North Carolina.

While Hurricane Hazel, another devastating storm, followed a different path across the ocean, it was a Category 4 when it came ashore on the North Carolina-South Carolina border west of Cape Fear on Oct. 15, 1954. Like Fran, it tracked far inland, reaching Raleigh with 90 mph winds, according to National Weather Service data.

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As Hurricane Florence approaches the Carolinas, those living inland are advised to prepare for the impact of the storm.

This is looking more and more like a life-threatening situation,” National Weather Service warning coordination meteorologist Nick Petro said in a briefing on Florence Sunday. “Folks, this is it, big time. Big time storm. Be ready for potentially worse-case scenarios here.”

In the briefing, Petro said the impacts of the storm also could be like Hurricane Matthew or Hurricane Floyd.

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“Can it be like Matthew or like Floyd? Absolutely,” Petro said.

“If the current forecast plays out, and then it goes on and stalls—absolutely, it could be much like Matthew, or even Floyd, but every storm is unique.”

Hurricane Floyd hit North Carolina in 1999 — also making landfall near Cape Fear — and brought record rainfall of up to 20 inches in some parts of Eastern North Carolina. At least 35 deaths were associated with Floyd, which sent the Tar River 24 feet above flood stage and the Neuse River 3 feet above previous record flood levels.

It’s too early to tell whether Florence, should it make landfall, would be more of a wind event or a rain event for Eastern North Carolina. But it’s significant to note that if it brings heavy rains, as some models suggest, most river basins in the region are at lower levels than they were before Floyd in 1999, or Harvey in 2017, which flooded many of the same areas as Floyd and some additional ones.

To his, eye, Petro said, at this point Florence looks the most like Fran, at least in the way it’s tracking.

A shocked Song Qian wades through his flooded apartment at Kensington Park Apartments after it flooded as Hurricane Fran passed through. He was not sure where the pots and pans came from. They were not his. Scott Sharpe ssharpe@newsobserver.com

“Remember what happened with Fran, there was widespread tree damage, well, well inland. Even back towards the western Piedmont. So clearly, and with as much as expected, look for prolonged power outages. That’s one of the things we want to remind folks is to make sure they can take care of themselves at home for at least 72 hours with the number of power outages that will probably happen with this.”

Fran was regarded as a meteorological wakeup call for millions of North Carolina residents who had forgotten or never knew that a storm that slammed the coast could muscle its way more than 200 miles inland.