Local News

Lessons from Fran: Tracking the Storm

Posted June 13, 1997 12:00 a.m. EDT

— Last September, Hurricane Fran touched thousands of lives and some are still not fully recovered, but now it's look ahead to the coming hurricane season. It's one which experts saycouldbring even more powerful storms.

Last year's Fran caused extensive damage and took many people by surprise. As you consider that this area is due for a category four hurricane, keep in mind that Fran was only a category three which is considered a medium-strength storm.

It was all sunshine and blue skies at Wrightsville Beach the day before Hurricane Fran hit; a great day to be at the coast.

Within 24 hours, everything had changed. The sun was gone and the first band of Fran's rain had begun to make its way inland. No one could have known then what they'd find the next morning.

WRAL-TV5 reporters, anchors and photographers fanned out along the North Carolina coast and inland to give us eyes on the storm. David Crabtree was at Wrightsville Beach.

As light faded it was hard to see the damage, but everyone suspected it was all around. Reporter Betsy Sykes was in downtown Wilmington when the full force of the storm struck the coastal city.

As the eye of the storm was making its way toward Wilmington, Fran unleashed winds and rains that took out trees, toppled signs, and knocked out power to thousands of homes and businesses.

Crabtree was still out when the storm worsened. He and his crew attempted to leave, but couldn't.

At sunrise the reporters were still out and were finally able to to let everyone know what had been washed in or washed away. Everyone, that is, who still had power or cable. What became visible took your breath away.

Reporter Terri Gruca was positioned at Carolina Beach. She warned that people were not being allowed into the area because of treacherous conditions.

The next stop for Fran was Topsail island. Keep in mind this is the same barrier island bruised by Hurricane Bertha less than two months before. People at North Topsail Beach had just begun putting their lives back together. Their spirits were bent but not broken, but then Fran came and the island was changed forever.

Topsail looked like a war zone where the war had been lost.

For three hours the entire island was under nearly four feet of water. The deep storm surge took out just about everything in sight. It also brought in enough salt from the ocean to quickly erase the color from what had been lush green marshlands between the island and the Intercoastal Waterway.

Early that morning it was learned that Fran was a killer. Three Marines from Camp Lejeune had thought Fran would be no big deal. Two had to be rescued. The third died. His was one of 16 lives claimed by Fran.

After devastating the coastline, Fran headed straight for the Triangle. As most people do when heading from the beach to the capital city, she traveled the path of Interstate-40. Within hours torrential rainfall had soaked parts of Sampson and Duplin counties, making long stretches of the highway impassable. Fran's ferocious winds uprooted and knocked over trees as if they were matchsticks.

WRAL Chief Meteorologist Greg Fishel, closely watching several computers at once, and kept viewers posted throughout the long night on the hurricane's path. Sports Anchor Jeff Gravley was fighting the storm asheheaded back from the beach on I-40.

As Fran continued to make her way toward the Triangle, the center of the storm remained intense and intact, something meteorologists say is very unusual for a storm of Fran's size. In fact, the eye of the storm did not break down until it reached the town of Garner, southeast of Raleigh.

Hurricanes normally die before reaching this far inland, but Fran simply refused to weaken, even well into the early morning hours. Fishel and WRAL Anchors Jim Payne and Debra Morgan stayed up -- and out -- with the fury.

The storm finally collapsed on itself over the city of Raleigh and when it did, it dropped its heaviest rains over the northeastern part of the city. By the next day Crabtree Valley Mall was an island. Anchors Bill Leslie and Renee McCoy reported on the stunning array of devastation after the sun came up, when most people couldn't get past the debris in their own yards.

Almost 9 inches of rain fell on Raleigh within 24 hours. The flooding that resulted magnified the rest of the problems, thousands of trees uprooted, thousands of people without power, and many without water. That Friday was the day people cranked up their chain-saws, issuing forth a sound that will be associated with Fran's aftermath in our memory banks for years.

While Fran was officially determined to be a medium-strength hurricane, it was a major storm in terms of damage. As to size, it was as large as Hugo and larger than Andrew.

As the new season approaches, it would be wise to remember that, while Fran created the worst disaster many of us had ever experienced, it could be worse. I pays to heed the warnings.