The 1996 Atlantic Hurricane Season was not as active as the prior season, 1995. While 1995 had 19 named storms, 11 hurricanes, and 5 major hurricanes, the 1996 season had fewer storms with 13 and hurricanes with 9. However, there were more major hurricanes with six, and several storms made landfall in the United States including Bertha, Edouard, Fran and Hortense. Fran was probably the strongest of these storms to make land along the East Coast of the United States. Fran was a Category Three Hurricane that crashed ashore in almost the exact location as Hurricane Bertha did two months earlier.
It was another harbinger of things to come in the Atlantic Basin. Ten years ago, the active cycle of storms that we now have grown accustomed to hear forecasters talking about on the news, was just in its infancy. The previous season, 1995, saw the second most number of storms on record with nineteen. Of those nineteen storms, eleven became hurricanes, and five became major storms of Category Three strength, or better on the Saffir-Simpson Scale.
With the exception of Hurricane Erin in August and Hurricane Opal in early October, the 1995 Atlantic Hurricane Season was somewhat merciful to the United States coastline in spite of its numbers. Most storms either recurved out to sea, or affected the islands in the Lesser Antilles. Hurricanes Luis and Marilyn were examples of such storms that year. The 1996 season would prove that not only 1995 was no fluke, and that an active cycle was here to stay, but also that the United States coastline from Maine to Texas was not going to be as lucky. Although there were six fewer named storms, and four fewer hurricanes, 1996 had a great deal of major storms with six including two that struck the Carolina coast. Those two major storms were Hurricane Bertha, the earliest storm ever to form in the Far Eastern Atlantic and Hurricane Fran.
Both Bertha and Fran made landfall in nearly the same exact location on the North Carolina Coast. Fran formed on the heels of Hurricane Edouard, another major storm which thankfully spared much of the United States East Coast during the Labor Day Weekend. Only extreme portions of Southeastern Massachusetts including Chatham saw any threat and effects from Edouard. By that time though, Fran was already approaching the U.S. Atlantic Coast as it was centered in the Bahamas. North Carolina had dodged a bullet with Bertha back in July. After peaking in intensity near Puerto Rico as a Category Three Hurricane with 115 mph, Bertha had weakened to a minimal storm with winds just above hurricane force.
Although Bertha moved into the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, and re-energized into a strong Category Two Storm, North Carolina's southern shore could have suffered more. Those facts did little to mitigate the damage and lessen the vulnerability for the southern coast of the Tar Heel state to Fran's eventual onslaught. Places like Wrightsville Beach and nearby Wilmington were now quite susceptible to significant damage from Fran, which ended up being a stronger storm at landfall. While Fran was weaker than Edouard, a Category Four Hurricane at its peak with winds of 145 mph, it was by no stretch a slouch. Maximum intensity of Fran was 120 mph winds and a minimum central pressure of 946 millibars, or 27.91 inches of Hg (Mercury).
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It was quite an active season in the Atlantic for major hurricanes. There were six that season including Bertha, Fran, and Edouard. There was also several others including Hortense, which deluged Puerto Rico, Isidore, and Lili, which brought stormy weather to Cuba, and helped provide moisture for a low pressure system that drenched the Northeast on the opening weekend of the 1996 World Series at Yankee Stadium. I do have a lot of memories of this season since Edouard and Fran developed around Labor Day Weekend.
The previous summer, I had been laid-off from a job, and spent it following some of the more notable tropical systems that year. Bertha got my interest early, and I followed its whereabouts earnestly via The Weather Channel. As the summer progressed, I had decided to go back to school after being away for almost a year. One of the courses I took up at Rutgers that fall semester was one called Elements of Meteorology. Each class started off with a weather discussion, and there was a lot of talk about Edouard, Bertha, Hortense, Lili, and Josephine. I joined the Rutgers Meteorology Club in late September, and at the first meeting, I watched with other club members as well as a few professors as the situation with Hortense developed in Puerto Rico.
Fran was actually a much weaker storm than Bertha was when it paid a visit to New Jersey. Nevertheless, I would never forget the headline from the Star-Ledger following the twister Fran produced in East Brunswick. New Jersey had seen its share of weather up to this point. The summer of 1995 produced a severe heat wave. Then in December that same year, a snowstorm dumped about six to eight inches on the Garden State a week before Christmas. As 1996 began, a vicious winter storm grew into the Blizzard of 1996, which brought record snows to much of the Northeast. It didn't stop there either as much of the Tri-State area of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut got between 70 and 90 inches of snow that year. In October, Josephine and Lili either formed into Nor'easters, or fed into low pressure systems that brought flooding rains to the region too.
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Making landfall on September 5th, 1996 in the Wrightsville Beach and Wilmington area of North Carolina, Fran eventually left behind $6.5 billion in damage as well as 37 direct or indirect deaths. Other states such as South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio were impacted by the system. Even New Jersey got a taste from Fran's remnants with thunderstorms that included an F2 tornado that struck East Brunswick in Middlesex County several days after the storm's landfall. Nevertheless, the brunt of this fierce hurricane was felt in the Tar Heel state with almost 90 percent of all the storm's damage occurring there. Just over one billion dollars of damage was inflicted on North Carolina's forests.
Fran damaged some 8.2 million acres of woodland including 85 percent in coastal areas and half in the capital district region of Raleigh-Durham according to the book, North Carolina's Hurricane History by Jay Barnes. Wind gusts around North Carolina ranged from as low as 79 mph at the Raleigh-Durham International Airport to 126 mph at Wrightsville Beach and 137 mph at Hewlett's Creek in Wilmington according to records from the National Weather Service. The lowest barometric pressure measured on land during the storm was 28.14 inches of Hg (Mercury), or 954 millibars at Southport. Rainfall amounts ranged between six and twelve inches around the state.
The farming industry, which took a good hit from Bertha with an estimated $189 million in losses, were even more devastated by Fran as the storm produced an additional $684 million in losses. Although approximately a half million people evacuated prior to the storm's arrival, and nearly ten thousand stayed in Red Cross shelters across the state, some one million residents remained in the area of Raleigh, and had to live without power. Six rivers including the Tar and Neuse, which were remembered for their flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Floyd in September, 1999, set record flood crests in the days following Hurricane Fran. In some ways, Fran was more devastating than Hugo (1989) and Hazel (1954) despite the fact that both those storms were Category Four Hurricanes at landfall.
As Fran moved inland, and interacted with the more rugged terrain of the Appalachians, places further north such as locations in Virginia received much higher rainfall amounts. Numerous locales in the Shenandoah National Park got at least 14 inches of rainfall while one location was deluged with 15.61 inches. Fran was certainly a storm to remember for residents of North Carolina, which took the brunt of tropical storms and hurricanes for several years (1996-1999) early on in this current active cycle in the Atlantic. This memorable storm also served as a sign of things to come for people all along the East Coast of the United States from Maine to Texas.
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