The night of Sept. 5, 1996, was unsettling in Wake County, rough weather and all, but no one could have imagined what the next day would bring. Hurricane Fran had hit Cape Fear on the coast the evening of the 5th. In this area, though, people figured Fran would do what most hurricanes had done in the past – move up the coast, perhaps leaving heavy rainfall and some damage as Hermine did this weekend.
Instead, Fran hit the Triangle with the natural disaster of a lifetime as it stayed on a surprise inward path, its consequences going as far as Greensboro. Wake County took the worst hit, and even now, in some of the thickly forested areas of Raleigh, there are snapped and fallen trees that recall the fury of that night and the destruction dawn revealed.
It was terrifying. “It looks like it’s been bombed,” then-Gov. Jim Hunt said of the worst damage he could remember in his lifetime. That was exactly right; on the 6th of September, people awoke to a war zone.
The Fran statistics don’t capture it all, but they help: nearly 9 inches of rain, a 12-foot storm surge, $2.4 billion in damage, 26 deaths. Almost all of Wake County was without power, hundreds of thousands of people affected, some for two weeks. Schools had to close. The entire state of North Carolina was declared in a state of emergency.
But today, many in this area will remember other things about Hurricane Fran, heart-warming things.
Things like neighbors, after checking on each other, emptying their freezers and grilling the meat. It seemed like neighborhood cookouts went on for more than a week. Some people who’d passed only a few polite words to each other were gathering to break bread at breakfast, lunch and dinner. At night, they got together by candlelight and sang songs or just talked. Kids were suddenly thrown into what seemed like another century, without television (!), and were forced to entertain themselves and each other.
This was a time, remember, when cell phones were relatively uncommon and people were not hostage to their electronics. So when the power went out and stayed out, life was dramatically changed. Strangers were drawn together. Friends and families couldn’t connect.
Fran affected families across the country. Phone lines were down, so those in Iowa trying to check on the welfare of relatives in North Carolina just couldn’t do so. Fire stations and police were flooded with calls from family members wanting to know the status of elderly relatives, and the first responders tried to help. But so many roads were blocked, so many lines of communication down, that there were some terrifying days for many sons and daughters. And fathers and mothers, for that matter, checking on college students in the Triangle.
Today, we can still remember the heat of the day and the night, the moisture in the air and the scent of broken pine trees everywhere. But there are so many good memories, of that lone, brave neighborhood warrior in his SUV making his way down the streets, seeing whether he could bring anyone some groceries – assuming he could find an open store. We remember as well those with chainsaws who moved to help people cut their way out of their yards, or to help with clearing debris. Yes, those who’d worked for years on their yards, landscaping and trimming, now just wanted a clear path to their front doors.
We had seen, and will see, other hurricanes. But all hope that Sept. 5 and 6 will in our lifetimes be the anniversary of the worst one we will ever see.