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Lessons from Fran: Tracking the Storm

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David Crabtree at Wrightsville Beach during Hurricane Fran.
RALEIGH — Last September, Hurricane Fran touchedthousands of lives and some are still not fully recovered, but now it'slook ahead to the coming hurricane season. It's one whichexperts saycouldbring even more powerful storms.

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

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

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

WRAL-TV5 reporters, anchors and photographers fanned out along theNorth Carolina coast and inland to give us eyes on the storm. DavidCrabtree 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 whenthe full force of the storm struck the coastal city.

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

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

At sunrise the reporters were still out and were finally able to to leteveryone 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 thatpeople were not being allowed into the area because of treacherousconditions.

The next stop for Fran was Topsail island. Keep in mind this is thesame barrier island bruised by Hurricane Bertha less than two monthsbefore. People at North Topsail Beach had just begun putting their livesback 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 colorfrom what had been lush green marshlands between the island and theIntercoastal 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 byFran.

After devastating the coastline, Fran headed straight for theTriangle. As most people do when heading from the beach to the capitalcity, she traveled the path of Interstate-40. Within hours torrentialrainfall had soaked parts of Sampson and Duplin counties, making longstretches of the highway impassable. Fran's ferocious winds uprooted andknocked over trees as if they were matchsticks.

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

As Fran continued to make her way toward the Triangle, the center of thestorm remained intense and intact, something meteorologists sayis 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 ofRaleigh.

Hurricanes normally die before reaching this far inland, but Fransimply 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 andwhen it did, it dropped its heaviest rains over the northeastern part ofthe city. By the next day Crabtree Valley Mall was an island.Anchors Bill Leslie and Renee McCoy reported on the stunning array ofdevastation 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 floodingthat resulted magnified the rest of the problems, thousands of treesuprooted, thousands of people without power, and many without water.That Friday was the day people cranked up their chain-saws, issuingforth a sound that will be associated with Fran's aftermath in our memorybanks for years.

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

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

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