Memories of Hurricane Fran linger 15 years later

Posted July 28, 2011 7:00 p.m. EDT
Updated September 2, 2021 6:03 p.m. EDT

— Two powerful hurricanes took aim at North Carolina 15 years ago, including one of the most devastating storms to ever hit the state: Hurricane Fran.

July 12, 1996, brought Hurricane Bertha, a Category 2 storm. It destroyed 5,000 homes in the United States, mostly in North Carolina.

Then, in early September, Hurricane Fran loomed. It was a Category 3 storm, bigger than Hurricane Hugo or Andrew.

Fran roared ashore near Bald Head Island on Sept. 5, 1996, packing winds of 115 mph.

Half a million people rushed inland, but hurricane-force winds and gusts followed them as far as Raleigh, Fayetteville and Goldsboro.

"Close enough for government work, we have hurricane-force conditions here right now," a soaked, poncho-covered WRAL Chief Meteorologist Greg Fishel declared during live coverage of Fran.

The storm dumped 8.8 inches of rain on the Triangle, then the highest rainfall ever recorded in the area.

At daybreak on Sept. 6, major streets were flooded, almost all of Wake County was without power, and not one of 420 traffic lights in Raleigh was working. Raleigh firefighters got nearly 700 calls for help in the next two days.

Damage covered all 891 square miles of Wake County. The storm created 3.5 million cubic yards of debris – four times more than Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

"There's more damage than I've ever seen," then-Gov. Jim Hunt said in the aftermath. "It looks like it's been bombed. Every block's got terrific damage."

Seeing the damage was a visceral surprise, even after an accurate forecast of the wind strength, Fishel recalled a few months after the hurricane.

"I don't think anybody, myself included, translated those numbers into what the landscape looked like the next morning," he said. "When we all got up in the light of day and we looked around, it's like, 'Holy cow, a 79-mph wind gust did that?'"

The North Carolina coast was also devastated.

"A number of houses, I think, are destroyed," Hunt said. "But also up and down the coast, we saw an awful lot of places where the beachfront's just gone."

Fran killed 24 people, including four people in Wake County, and caused an estimated $2.3 billion worth of damage in North Carolina.

For the first time in state history, a state of emergency was declared in all 100 counties.

But there'll never be another hurricane Fran again. The damage caused by the storm was so severe that the National Weather Service retired the name.