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20 years later people in NC still remember the night Hurricane Fran tore up the state

Hurricane Fran: 22 years after the devastation

In Sept. 1996, Hurricane Fran left a path of devastation from the coast of North Carolina inland to the Triangle and many other counties. The storm left residents of many towns and communities stunned by its unexpected ferocity, leaving many with
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In Sept. 1996, Hurricane Fran left a path of devastation from the coast of North Carolina inland to the Triangle and many other counties. The storm left residents of many towns and communities stunned by its unexpected ferocity, leaving many with

At Susan Bowen’s house outside Roxboro, the power went out before midnight on Sept. 5, 1996.

As her children slept, Bowen spent the hours before daybreak in total darkness, bombarded by sound, kept awake by fear. “All we heard was wind, wind, wind,” she says. “It never stopped. That big howl, and then trees starting to pop.”

After a night of destruction, Hurricane Fran, which had come ashore at Cape Fear, 225 miles away in Brunswick County, had rolled right over her home.

 
 
Destroyed homes litter the beach on Topsail Island Sept. 6, 1996 after Hurricane Fran roared through.Robert Willett - newsobserver.com

Fran clobbered a chunk of the coast before coming all the way to Wake County with winds still at hurricane force. It dropped more than 13 inches of rain on Brunswick County, and 6 to 10 inches elsewhere along its path. Outside Garner, Fran finally lost some energy and was downgraded to a tropical storm, but it still had winds of 50 to 60 mph and torrents of rain when it bowled through Durham and exited the state through Person County after 7 a.m. on Friday.

Besides leveling hundreds of beach homes and cutting new inlets through barrier islands, the storm was a meteorological wake-up call for millions of North Carolina residents who had forgotten – if they ever knew – that a storm that slammed the coast could muscle its way more than 200 miles inland, causing death and destruction. They had gone to bed Thursday night expecting peripheral effects from the storm and arose on Friday to a landscape rearranged. Century-old trees lay on the ground, and under them, severed utility lines. Roads were blocked. Dozens of dams, some of which had stood since the 1800s, were broken.

Fran was blamed for 37 deaths, 24 in North Carolina. It caused $7.2 billion in damage in the state in 1996 dollars – more than $11 billion in today’s dollars – wrecking homes, businesses, infrastructure, crops and timber.

It cut power over such a wide stretch of the state’s southern coast that for a while it was like World War II, when residents blacked out their windows so German submarines cruising offshore couldn’t see the lights of land.


 

Fran was the second hurricane to hit North Carolina in 1996, the first major storm to strike the state’s coast in more than 40 years and one of six hurricanes to make landfall here between 1993 and 1999.

Though Floyd, just three years later, would be deadlier and costlier, Fran remains one of the state’s worst natural disasters.

Twenty years later, Brunswick has almost double the number of residents it had when Fran hit, and about a million people live in the 18 counties along the ocean and the state’s coastal waterways.

The state hasn’t had a direct hit by a hurricane at Category 3 or stronger since Fran. Forecasters say that, statistically, it’s time.

Brunswick County

Herbert Saffir and Bob Simpson developed their Hurricane Scale in 1969 to convey the destructive potential of an approaching tropical cyclone, with Category 1 being the least menacing and Category 5 the most.

If there were a corresponding scale to gauge how people react to that kind of danger, Mary Strickland might fall in the range of “mulish.”

On Sept. 4, the day before Fran came ashore, Brunswick County officials ordered the evacuation of its barrier islands, including six beach communities, and told anyone living along the Intracoastal Waterway, in a low-lying area or in a mobile home to get out. In all, about 500,000 people in the Carolinas moved to higher ground.

“We didn’t leave,” Strickland says.

She and her husband, Wayne, the building inspector for Southport, took cots and bedrolls and moved into the back of the old brick building that, at the time, housed the maritime museum they founded. The building had survived who-knew-how-many storms there on the Cape Fear River, so it felt safe, Strickland says. It had a generator, so they could run fans and a microwave oven when the electricity went out. And the back section had a double roof, so no matter how hard it rained or blew, “It was quiet. You could sleep,” she says.

Curtis Ledbetter remembers the devastation caused in the coastal communities of Brunswick County, N.C. when Hurricane Fran hit in 1996.

Curtis Ledbetter spent that night in an even more heavily fortified structure, at the Brunswick Nuclear Plant. Ledbetter, now the dockmaster at Deep Point Marina in Southport, was a security guard at the nuclear plant then. As Fran approached, essential plant personnel were driving in.

Fran was a big storm, physically. On radar maps at one point, it covered more than two-thirds of the state in swirls of gray. In Southport, people woke the day of Fran’s arrival to a light off-and-on rain, which got heavier around 2 p.m., when the wind was up to about 25 mph. By 4 p.m., it was pouring and the wind was 50 mph. At 7 p.m., it was hurricane rain, that stinging, sideways assault with a howling 74-mph gale that drives everybody but cable TV weather reporters inside.

Once the horizontal rain arrived, “I don’t think I went back out, and from inside the plant, you couldn’t feel a lot of wind,” Ledbetter said. “You could just watch it on the security cameras, blowing around outside.”

Officially, Fran made landfall about 8:30 p.m., striking Cape Fear, the southernmost tip of Smith Island, off Brunswick County. It had 115-mph winds as it rolled across the mouth of the Cape Fear River toward Southport. Dozens of trees were blown over around town. Boats were strewn about in the marinas.

For a while, after so many hurricanes battered the state in the 1990s, hurricane tracking became a seasonal hobby. Seafood restaurants printed maps marked with longitude and latitude on placemats so people could plot the eye of a storm as it moved across the Atlantic. But when a hurricane nears or crosses onto land, the eye’s path tells only part of the destructive story.

Because of the counter-clockwise rotation of storms in the northern hemisphere, and North Carolina’s ragged coastline, a big storm that makes landfall at Cape Fear – as so many have – is a wrecking ball to the barrier islands to the northeast.

“One thing we try to encourage folks to do is, don’t get hyper-focused on the eye,” said Nick Petro, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Raleigh. “The eye is simply used as a means of tracking the center of the storm and where it’s going. It’s important to look at, but depending on the strength of the storm, typically the strongest winds will be all around the eye and also to the right of the eye.”

Because of the counter-clockwise rotation of storms in the northern hemisphere, and North Carolina’s ragged coastline, a big storm that makes landfall at Cape Fear – as so many have – is a wrecking ball to the barrier islands to the northeast. Fran brought heavy rain, terrific winds and a massive ocean surge to the islands that lie like a 115-mile-long string of beads between Cape Fear and Cape Lookout.

So as the eye of the storm, with its temporary calm, passed over Southport, giving the Stricklands a chance to make a quick windshield tour of the city to scout for downed power lines and anything else that would need urgent attention, the northeast side of the hurricane was generating gusts up to 137 mph and pushing a wall of seawater 8 to 12 feet high into oceanfront communities from Bald Head Island to Emerald Isle.

 
A Charleston roofer does repair work on a house at North Topsail Beach after Hurricane Fran decimated homes closer to the ocean. Chuck Liddy - newsobserver.com

North Topsail Beach fared the worst; Fran’s 12-foot storm surge destroyed nearly 200 homes there and carried away the temporary town hall that had been housed in a mobile home since Hurricane Bertha wiped out the original building earlier in the summer. The ocean took 40 feet of beach sand and erased the dunes in places. It cut five new inlets through the island.

Along the coast, Fran destroyed piers or lopped them off. It undermined roads, collapsing large segments. It covered sections of U.S. 421 in Carolina Beach with 3 feet of sand, and buried 10 blocks of Ocean Drive on Emerald Isle. It damaged or destroyed more than 4,000 pleasure and fishing boats. Gov. Jim Hunt had to call in the N.C. National Guard to prevent looting.

Brunswick County had about 63,200 full-time residents when Fran hit. It now has more than 122,000 — a 93 percent increase — and, in the height of summer when beach homes and rental properties fill, it grows by 40,000 more.

Mike Hargett, the county’s planner and economic development director, says many of those people are retirees who have moved from Northeastern and Midwestern states. They now live in sprawling subdivisions with the words “plantation,” “creek” or “woods” in the name, most of which have been built since Hurricane Fran.

They moved here to escape snow, Hargett says. When they consider relocating to coastal North Carolina, which gets hit more than any Atlantic state except Florida, “A few of them ask, ‘What about hurricanes?’

“They are a nuisance, that’s for sure,” Hargett said he tells them. “I don’t want to minimize the damage they can do, or the deaths they can cause. They down trees and power lines, and limit mobility and cause disruption. But there are tornadoes in other parts of the world, and there are earthquakes, and floods and all kinds of disasters.”

A hurricane has two demolition tools to use on waterfront structures: sustained, punishing wind, and waves. By itself, wind can pick up a section of roof, for instance, and peel it off, creating an opening for the storm to get inside and do more harm. Waves — pushing the ocean against a building, underneath or it even through it — can scour around pilings to undermine the building’s support, or wrench off exterior stairs, and use them as battering rams. Together, wind and waves can rip apart a house in a few hours.

When Fran was finished at Topsail Island, many said it looked as if a bulldozer had plowed through, knocking down nearly nearly a whole row of beachfront homes and part of the row behind it. One reason the storm did so much damage was that Bertha had scooped away most of the protective dune in places, and the ocean had barely begun to bring it back.

But in other beach communities, damage to buildings was not as severe as might have been expected; many home were flooded by Fran’s storm surge, but weren’t knocked down.

A study of the damage by the Federal Emergency Management Agency attributed the better outcomes to beach “renourishment” projects and a 1986 change in coastal building codes that required support pilings be sunk much deeper.

Spencer Rogers, coastal construction and erosion specialist for Sea Grant, the N.C. State University-based research and educational organization, says there had been several major renourishment projects along the coast in the 30 years before Fran. Wrightsville Beach had one, and Carolina Beach, and most of Kure Beach.

Where the augmented dunes had been maintained over the years, Rogers said, “They offered a lot of protection during Fran.”

Rogers helped craft the other improvement, the building code change, which was based on research he had done showing that oceanfront homes can survive significant wind and waves if they’re built on 26-foot pilings, with the first 16 feet below ground.

Fran was the first major test of the new standard, and FEMA inspectors found afterward that nearly every house built after it took effect survived. Inspectors found indications that the handful of post-1986 houses that didn’t survive never met the specifications.

 
Paula Cauble, of Carolina Beach, looks through the destroyed door into the first floor of her neighbor's sand-filled oceanfront house Sept. 6, 1996, after Hurricane Fran roared through the area. The battery operated clock on the wall was still running. Robert Willett - newsobserver.com

“Fran got our attention on the coast,” said Rogers, whose own house on a canal near Masonboro Inlet got two or three feet of water underneath it during the storm, but fared fine. “It’s not so much that Fran changed the way we do things as that it tested a number of things that had not been tested before.”

Insurance industry reports say that in 2013, the most recent year for which figures are available, there was $163.5 billion worth of insured property along the N.C. coast vulnerable to a hurricane.

Among those is the N.C. Maritime Museum at Southport, which became a state agency in 2000 and in 2006 moved into a renovated building large enough to display its collection of model ships, its old ship’s cannon and tattered hurricane flags. The building has become a centerpiece of Southport, a former fishing village whose shops, galleries and restaurants now make it a tourist destination.

The museum’s front picture window offers one of Mary Strickland’s favorite views, of the Cape Fear River as it meets the Atlantic Ocean. It’s a great place to watch a storm come in.

Pender County

Thermon Eakins got up on Friday, Sept. 6, thinking he had dodged a bullet.

He was working then for the World Bank in Washington, D.C., but was at his parents’ house visiting. Fran had passed right over their home near the community of Atkinson. It dropped more than 9 inches of rain, but in their yard there were just a few limbs down and some water standing.

The water came through and just washed everything away.

Thermon Eakins of Pender County

Then he got a call from somebody at Lakes Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, the church his parents had attended, the one where he and his siblings grew up.

“The church is full of water,” he was told. Eakins got in the car and headed toward the building, the fourth one the congregation had built since Lakes Chapel was founded in 1865 by a group of former slaves and children of slaves.

“The new church,” as Eakins calls it, was built in 1962 on a bit of low ground not far off U.S. 421, and when rain is heavy, a nearby creek often overflows into the churchyard. This was different.

Eakins’ route was blocked by water over the road. Trustees who could get there from the other direction had to use a boat to look inside the sanctuary. The water was 4 feet deep.

Thermon Eakins of Pender County, N.C. remembers the devastation caused by Hurricane Fran in 1996.

“It was over the pews,” Eakins says. “The water came through and just washed everything away.”

After the water receded, members ripped out the carpets, shoveled out the stinking mud and knocked down the sodden sheet rock.

Insurance paid a little, Eakins says, but it wasn’t near enough for all that had to be done.

“We don’t have a lot of big donors,” Eakins says. “Basically the people of that church are farmers. We had to do it by the bootstraps.

“We used everything we had in the treasury, and then we raised money,” he says. Other churches in the area – mostly African American congregations – took up collections to help Lakes Chapel rebuild. Church members provided much of the labor, and one local contractor donated all the tile for the floor. New Hope Baptist Church in Willard, about 10 minutes away, let its sister congregation hold services in its sanctuary on alternating Sundays.

The new church has about 170 member now, and the newest ones, Eakins says, probably have no idea that flood – or a second one, three years later when Floyd came through – ever happened. Fran destroyed membership records and historical documents about the church’s founding, and Eakins, now 78, doesn’t know whether the younger generation cares to try to reconstruct those.

The experience changed the church, Eakins says, far beyond the new carpet and fresh appliances.

“We got even closer together, with each other and with the neighborhood,” where Eakins says blacks and whites got along but rarely interacted socially. For a while, he says, “We got a better understanding between the two races. They got to talk to each other.”

Sampson County

Wilson Spencer is a worrier. Thoughts of what Fran might do kept him awake much of the night, and he didn’t even suspect that it would pass right overhead.

His farm, near Faison, in Sampson County, is 100 miles from where the hurricane came ashore, but he knew a storm that big and powerful could drop enough rain to breach his two hog-waste lagoons, causing a costly spill, and the wind could wreck his hog barns and ruin his corn and soybeans.

High winds are tough on timber, too, and Eastern North Carolina is covered in it. Loblolly, long leaf and short-leaf pine. Oak, poplar, black gum and other hardwoods.

Fran killed 24 people in NC and caused $11 billion in damages in today’s dollars When adjusted for inflation, Fran ruined: More than $383.4 million worth of tobacco $116.5 million worth of cotton $113.5 million worth of corn A million chickens and turkeys died, and at least 16,000 hogs

While some people grow trees to provide visual buffers, watershed protection or hunting grounds, others plant as a long-term investment. Timber can help support a retirement or get a son or daughter off to a good start.

On 200 or so forested acres he had at the time, Spencer had one stand of mature hardwoods that was ready to harvest when Fran boiled up in the Atlantic. He figured the wood could bring about $20,000.

In his pickup-truck survey of the farm at first light, Spencer saw that his hog barns had some roof damage but the animals were OK. The waste lagoons were nearly full but had held.

It was just broken up, knotted up and twisted and it was just gone.

Wilson Spencer of Sampson County

In the fields, the soybeans seemed fine. The corn?

“It blew the corn completely down,” Spencer says. “It was a pretty big loss, and kind of a mess trying to get up what was left.

“But the big loss,” he says, “was timber.”

Because of the scope of the damage from Fran, the National Weather Service never confirmed whether the hurricane generated tornadoes that touched down, but there were reports across the region of what appeared to be tornadoes or tornado damage.

Wilson Spencer of Sampson County, N.C. remembers the destruction dealt by Hurricane Fran in 1996.

Spencer thinks that may be what hit his hardwood.

“When it got through with it, it was nothing. I mean, it was just gone,” Spencer says. “It was just broken up, knotted up and twisted and it was just gone. You couldn’t salvage anything. You couldn’t even walk through it.”

Across the region, 8 million acres of forest land suffered damage, and about $1.3 billion worth of timber, worth nearly $2 billion in current dollars, was lost. That doesn’t include the value of the millions of trees that were felled in people’s yards and in parks and open spaces.

Rick Dove, who now works with the environmental group Waterkeeper Alliance, was the Neuse Riverkeeper when Fran hit, and as he and the group’s volunteers surveyed the river after the storm, “We found dead hogs all back in the swamps and the marshes.”

Timber accounts for about 145,000 jobs and contributes $29 billion a year to the NC economy. About 60 percent of the state’s land area – 18.6 million acres – is covered by forest, 85 percent of it privately owned.

Today, feral swine destroy crops and fields and threaten to spread diseases to commercially raised animals all over eastern North Carolina. Some experts attribute the animals’ appearance in the region to bear-hunting limits in the mid-1990s that prompted some hunters to introduce wild hogs as an alternate prey. But Dove says hogs carried away by Fran’s — and later, Floyd’s — floodwaters have to be part of the problem.

“There is a good chance many survived.”

One good thing about a hurricane like Fran, Dove says, is all that rainwater coming down the rivers flushes out pollutants, algae and even invasive plant species. Before Fran, some of Dove’s neighbors in New Bern couldn’t get their boats into the Trent River because it was clogged with coontail.

“Fran washed a lot of that out,” Dove said. “Now, 20 years later, it’s all grown back.”

Harnett County

Dorothea Stewart-Gilbert got up about 2 a.m. on Sept. 6, while Fran was passing over, and put a flashlight against her bedroom window.

“Nothing but black,” she said. “I couldn’t see a single thing.”

With the breaking of dawn, two things became clear.

Dorothea Stewart-Gilbert remembers the 1996 impact of Hurricane Fran on Harnett County.

One was the reason she couldn’t see out her window: A huge pine tree had just missed the house, and its needles were mashed against the glass like a giant green powder puff.

Stewart-Gilbert’s other revelation was that she had more land – and, now, more downed trees – than a single woman her age could care for.

The farm had been her grandfather’s; he’d built the one-story house in 1908. She was born in what’s now the living room.

Everywhere I looked, there was a tree lying on the ground, pointed at my house like a cannon.

Dorothea Stewart-Gilbert of Harnett County

Her grandfather, Charlie Stewart, had often driven a buggy for James Archibald Campbell, who founded Buies Creek Academy in 1887, and her mother had attended there.

By the time Stewart-Gilbert was teaching English there it was Campbell University.

As a young girl, Stewart-Gilbert had heard her grandfather say he hoped the farm would never be sold. “I’ll never sell it,” she promised him many times. But the morning after Fran, she knew something had to change. The storm, which Stewart-Gilbert and her friends had not considered enough of a threat to cancel their Thursday-night book club meeting, had thrown more than 50 trees to the ground on Stewart-Gilbert’s property.

“It was much worse than Hazel,” says Stewart-Gilbert, who was 27 and living in the same house when that storm came through.

“Everywhere I looked, there was a tree lying on the ground, pointed at my house like a cannon. I was a teacher. I couldn’t even afford to have them cleaned up.”

A neighbor with a chain saw cut off the branches of the ones closest to the house, but the trunks remained. One day, an impatient Stewart-Gilbert stuffed a bunch of crinkled-up newspaper under one of the tree carcasses, doused it with gasoline and tossed a match on it.

“Whoosh!” she says. “Burned the hair right off my arms. It grew back eventually, so no harm done.”

It did no harm to the tree trunk, either. That was finally taken care of after Stewart-Gilbert approached Campbell University about accepting her property as a gift in an arrangement that would let her live in the house on a couple of acres for the rest of her life. The university sold the land to a developer, who built a housing subdivision called Arbor Crest.

With the money from the sale, the school established an endowment that funds three full scholarships: one each in business, the divinity school and English.

Johnston County

Loomis Woodard spent the night of Hurricane Fran in prison.

“It wasn’t anything unusual,” says Woodard, who was assistant superintendent of Johnston Correctional Institution in September 1996. “I was there because I felt like I needed to be there. How can you expect the shift employees to be there if you don’t set the example? The superintendent I took over from taught me that.”

Loomis Woodward of Johnston County, N.C. talks about the damage caused by Hurricane Fran in 1996.

Based on the forecasts, Woodard figured there would be some wind and rain after midnight, but nothing terrible. As part of a recent expansion, Johnston had received emergency generators, so even if the power went out, he wasn’t worried. Without that backup, he’d have to station security officers in trucks around the perimeter fence with their headlights shining in, to make sure none of the 700 or so medium-security inmates took the opportunity to escape.

What Woodard really saw in Fran was an opportunity for the inmates to give something back.

At Johnston, inmates have their choice of several vocational training programs, including culinary arts, developed with the help of the county’s community college. In particular, in the 1990s, trusted inmates could learn to bake.

“Their specialty was those big yeast rolls, the kind that smell so good,” Woodard said. It gave them a useful skill, and it gave the prison population fresh bread that was cheaper than what the state could supply.

Woodard knew that a half-million people had been evacuated from the Carolinas coast ahead of the hurricane, and he figured a certain percentage had headed up Interstate 95, which cuts through Johnston. Some were spending the night in a shelter at a local school.

If the storm knocked down a lot of trees, road crews would be out trying to clear the debris as soon as it was over. If traffic signals weren’t working, police officers would be manning intersections.

All those people would need to eat.

Before the storm made landfall, Woodard sent out for extra cold cuts and cheese. He scored pallets of prepackaged snack cakes and got fresh fruit. And he called in his bakers.

They worked through the night, and kept working after the storm knocked the power out and the generators came on. They worked the next day, when it became clear that the damage was far beyond what anyone had expected. They kept at it for at least a week.

They made thousands of meals that nourished hurricane evacuees, highway crews, emergency responders and members of the N.C. National Guard.

The prison also assembled four or five work crews.

“They cleared tree limbs out of drainage ditches,” Woodard says. “They spent a lot of time helping the town of Four Oaks, which didn’t have a strong infrastructure. And if there was a farm where the tobacco was blown over, they actually went into the field and helped stand it back up.”

Woodard didn’t have money in his budget to pay all the inmates the usual 40 cents a day for their help, but he could give them credit for the time, which meant fractional time off their sentences. Some of the inmates probably volunteered just for that. Others, Woodard believes, worked the extra hours for the same reasons he and his staff did.

“You do it because you’ve got to do it,” he says. “Because that’s what you’re supposed to do: help your fellow man. They didn’t mind doing it at all. It tickled them to death to tell you the truth. They’re human beings. They appreciate the opportunity to do something good.”

Wake County

Erich Kaltofen and his wife moved into their house in Cary right about the time Fran was taking shape as a tropical depression off Africa. When it crossed the Atlantic, turned into a hurricane and started up the U.S. coastline, Kaltofen was dismissive.

“I was naive,” he admits now. “I’m from Austria. There, we have avalanches, and we understand how quickly they can kill you. We don’t really understand about hurricanes.”

I just thought, ‘Well, this is interesting. This rain is falling horizontally.’

Eric Kaltofen of Wake County

Kaltofen, a mathematician at N.C. State University, didn’t stop to add up the forward speed of the hurricane and the velocity of its winds, and he didn’t consider how the counter-clockwise rotation bludgeons whatever lies northeast of the storm’s center. Even when he went out to tie down his trashcans, while Fran’s eye was still at the coast, and got pelted by horizontal rain, “I just thought, ‘Well, this is interesting. This rain is falling horizontally.’ It didn’t occur to me that that was an indicator of the wind speed.”

And later, when he and his wife couldn’t sleep because of the howling wind, they didn’t think to move downstairs where they might be safer. “We just put in some ear plugs and went to sleep.”

Erich Kaltofen recalls the damage caused in Wake County when Hurricane Fran hit in 1996.

So it was a bit of a shock when they looked around in the morning. A 60- or 70-year-old oak tree in their back yard had come down, smashing the swing set that came with the house. Trees were down in other people’s yards, too.

‘That’s when I sort of realized, ‘We could have been killed.’ 

Across Wake County, everybody was making the same discovery: downed trees and power lines, crushed houses, leafy roadblocks.

As Fran’s eye had arrived in Wake County, the storm finally fell apart, dumping additional rain on top of what had fallen in the hours of the hurricane’s approach. RDU International Airport recorded 8.8 inches of rain and wind gusts as high as 79 mph, the result of Raleigh’s being to the upper right of the storm’s track.

Flooding was a problem; Kaltofen started a Fran scrapbook that included pictures of Crabtree Valley Mall with water from Crabtree Creek a foot or two deep on the first floor.

The damage in Wake was so widespread that residents who also owned homes at the coast were unable to leave their houses here to check on property there.

A lieutenant in the N.C. Highway Patrol had an idea to help those people. The agency had just begun to use video to train its officers, and it had a small fleet of helicopters. What if it collected aerial footage of the whole coastline and made it available to the public?

“It was one of the best ideas we ever came up with,” says Ed Maness, who was the patrol’s video guru at the time. The day after the storm, he and two colleagues flew from Raleigh to the coast, carrying 60 to 70 blank video tapes.

Retired State Trooper Ed Manness recalls the unexpected damage caused when Hurricane Fran hit in 1996.

“We started at the south, at the South Carolina border, and went all the way north to the Virginia line,” Maness says. “We’d film, land, refuel and go back up. We did that all day.”

When they were done, they flew back to Raleigh. About 10 p.m., Maness began editing the footage down to about an hour and 45 minutes, inserting subtitles to give audiences a bearing. “Looking north from Little River Inlet,” for example.

He finished about 8:30 the next morning. At 9:30, the agency held its first showing, at the patrol headquarters off Blue Ridge Road. About 1,400 people saw it the first day.

The state gave copies to the media, and later set up a projection screen in a building at the State Fairgrounds to accommodate bigger crowds. The BBC asked for excerpts. Later, National Geographic and UNC TV used parts. Maness delivered copies to the state archives office, which has them still.

“It was so emotional,” Maness recalls. “People would sit there and watch until they finally saw their section of the coast, and their neighborhood. And then they would have one of two reactions. They would scream with joy, because they found their house and it was still standing. Or they were just devastated, crying and upset because it was gone.

“Either way, they said they were grateful, because at least they knew.”

Durham County

Until Fran, the last time A.C. Russell had seen the Flat River in Rougemont run so far out of its banks was October 1954. Hazel.

Russell, 89, recalls that “Fran was mild compared to Hazel,” but it was Fran’s 8 inches of rain that sent the river 4 feet over the top of the Red Mountain Road bridge railing, and kicked down Bowling’s Mill, a two-story grist mill that had stood at the river crossing since about 1850.

A.C. Russell Jr. of Durham County, N.C. talks about the damage caused by Hurricane Fran in 1996.

Across Eastern North Carolina, Fran had altered the landscape. At Topsail Island, where so many homes were wiped out, returning property owners had a hard time at first even figuring out where their houses had been. Inland, people were disoriented by the loss of trees, or buildings, or the shadows they had cast at different times of day.

Fran was hard on historic structures, especially ones that had sat vacant, the only thing between them and ruin being an intact roof and windows that kept water out. Claudia Brown of the N.C. State Historic Preservation Office says that immediately after the storm, preservationists began surveying the damage to significant buildings and trees within the strike zone, and found many dozens in trouble.

A report in late September 1996 says that in Kure Beach, the circa-1915 Bond-Bennett house, which was just about to get its local historic designation plaque, was “gone: split in two and blew away.” For vacant homes, barns and agricultural buildings, the prognosis was particularly grim.

“Most of these structures are taken for granted and they probably will not be stabilized,” the report predicted. “…Hundreds of thousands of these structures…eventually will be lost due to the storm.”

As Fran came through Durham, it may have spawned a small tornado that hit the southern section of the Sarah P. Duke gardens, a horticultural memorial to the widow of one of Duke University’s founders. Dedicated in 1939, the 55 acres of gardens attract more than 300,000 visitors a year.

Chuck Hemric remembers the damage caused by Hurricane Fran on the Duke Gardens in Durham, N.C. in 1996.

At the time of the storm, there were shade-loving plantings in the southern section, including an expensive weeping Japanese maple that had taken years of coddling.

“Gone,” says Chuck Hemric, who has worked at the gardens 33 years and directs the 325 volunteers who maintain it. “Split from the crown.”

Everywhere he looked in the gardens, Hemric says, there was a tree down, either the whole specimen or the top half, where it had been twisted off. Paths were blocked. The pond was filled to the brim with silt.

Immediately, volunteers began picking up the debris, raking up the leaves and needles. Duke Forest, another division of the university, helped take out the bigger trees.

Today, Hemric says, most visitors can’t tell a hurricane came through the gardens. He can still pick out a stretch in the southern section where the treeline drops down – like a missing skyscraper in a cityscape – but he’s accustomed to it now. He says the garden recovered more quickly than the people who labor in it.

“The plants can adapt,” he says. “Where we had a shade garden, we now have plants that can live in the sun. There is always a silver lining.”

Person County

Susan Bowen had a chemistry teacher at Person County High School in the 1970s who used to talk all the time about Hurricane Hazel.

The woman often recalled how schools had let out ahead of the storm, but she had not worried about it until she saw the barometer dropping, almost crashing, as Hazel approached.

Susan Bowen recalls the 1996 impact of Hurricane Fran on Person County.

Bowen never understood why the teacher had been so affected by that storm — until Fran.

The Bowens’ home was in a 5-acre wooded tract with just enough clearing for a house. All night long she listened to those trees pop. When it was over, and the storm had headed into Virginia, the family cut the fallen wood into fireplace-sized pieces, which they burned for years.

The forest around Bowen’s house has filled in, but there remains a living monument to Fran in her yard. It’s a big oak the storm’s 60-mph winds twisted into a sculpture.

Nearly 12 hours and more than 200 miles after making landfall, Fran was no longer a hurricane as it left North Carolina, but it was still fearsome as it crossed the Virginia border. It corkscrewed the top of out of that tree, and yet, like Bowen’s memories of the storm, “The tree still lives today.”

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