RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – It was arguably the worst hurricane to ever hit North Carolina. Hurricane Fran slammed into the state Sept. 5, 1996.
“It was a category three hurricane with winds of 115 miles per hour,” said WNCN meteorologist Wes Hohenstein. “And when it got to central North Carolina winds were still near 80 miles per hour.”
Fallen trees littered the landscape all over North Carolina.
“You know a lot of our deaths, especially inland, over half, were from fallen trees,” said Joe Wright, the deputy director of Emergency Management for North Carolina.
Hurricane Fran killed 24 people. In 1996, the population of North Carolina was about 7 million people. Today, there are more than 10 million people living in the state so another Fran-like storm could do even more damage.
“When you’ve got that dense a population and you have a storm come in, the threat level to individuals is huge,” said Wright, who was working Emergency Management in Caswell County when Hurricane Fran hit. “A lot of the devastation that was woodland in 1996 are now new subdivisions.”
Wake County’s population has doubled to more than 1 million over the last 20 years but people and houses wouldn’t be the only problem were a similar hurricane were to strike the area.
“Fran caused 700 million in agriculture damage,” Wright said. “I expect that number to be much larger today with commercial farms we have in that path, it would take a while to recover.”
Of course that would impact the entire country as the state is second in the country in hog production, third in turkey production, first in growing sweet protatoes and first in tobacco.
“We used to think of hurricane planning as an eastern branch or coastal thing,” Wright said. “We didn’t think about it in central or western parts of the state like we do now. Fran opened our eyes.”
Wright and several of his co-workers not only have the experience of Hurricane Fran but they were also went to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. That knowledge, along with technological advancements will make dealing with our next storm much easier.
“In ’96 we were thrilled that we could fax in a situation report or resource request to the state,” Wright said. “Now we are connected to our counties through a crisis management tool … to where counties instantly input data and I see it.”
The name “Fran” was retired in 1997 from the hurricane name list but there certainly could be another Fran by a different name.
Those who remember clearing their property and long waits to restore power know to prepare before each hurricane season.
“We never say never and hope is not a course of action,” Wright said. “We don’t hope that a hurricane’s not gonna hit us, we prepare for it.”