photos and commentary by Graham Watkins

Late in the evening of September 5, 1996, Hurricane Fran became the first hurricane since Hurricane Hazel in 1954 to strike the heart of North Carolina. Over twenty people were left dead by her passage, and the damages are in the billions of dollars; the ill-advised beach community at North Topsail Beach was practically wiped out. Fran made landfall near Fort Fisher, NC, and one of the first towns to feel her 115 mph wind was Kure Beach, where the damage was extreme.

The hurricane then moved directly inland, the eye passing through Durham, some 175 miles from the storm's landfall, and at that time her winds were still blowing at 75 mph; the cities of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, the "Heart of Carolina," all took severe damage from wind and flooding. Some of that damage is shown below.

[Destroyed house] [Destroyed house]
[Destroyed house] [Destroyed house]
Destruction of beachfront homes in Kure Beach, NC.

[Downed trees] [Downed trees]
[Destroyed house] [Damaged house]
Fallen trees and houses damaged and destroyed in Durham, NC.

The Hurricane

By about seven in the evening on Thursday, Sept. 5, central North Carolina was already the effects of this large Class 3 hurricane, but at that time those effects weren't severe at all. It was raining gently, there was a breeze blowing, it wasn't an unpleasant evening.

By midnight things were very different. The wind by then was above 50 mph and rising, torrents of rain were falling. Standing on my front porch, my wife and I watched the branches of the two great oaks aross the street from us whipping about, we watched the power lines bounce; even though the porch has a roof we became wet very quickly as the wind drove the rain in under it. Flashes of odd greenish lighting sometimes illuminated the sky. Going back inside, we discovered that the driving rain had discovered a heretofore-unknown leak in our roof; water was dripping onto our bed. It was a small leak, though, and a pan in the attic took care of it for the moment. By 12:30 we'd lost electrical power, and we were not to have it again until Tuesday.

We attempted to sleep, but I awoke at 4:30 AM. The wind was screaming around the house, and the darkness was absolute, velvet, seemingly tangible. I rose, went out again onto my porch and on out into winds now continuously above 70 mph. The great oaks across the street, large enough to strike our house if they fell, were rocking visibly in the faint light provided by the lightning and by the distant glow from those areas that had retained their power. For the next two hours, almost until dawn, I remained at my kitchen table, a single candle burning, listening to the shriek of the wind and the periodic loud cracks and thuds as trees and branches fell to the ground.

In the morning we discovered a city almost completely without power; almost none of the traffic lights were working, stores were only open in tiny enclaves were the power had been somehow retained and there weren't many of those. Simple things like gasoline and ice were hard to find. Trees, many of them venerable giants, were down everywhere, it was impossible to drive more than a few blocks in any direction without encountering one that was blocking the road. Durham will show the effects of this storm for quite a while...

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