Postcards from Fran: A Neighborhood Knocked Down, then United, by Fran

This account of Hurricane Fran comes from Dr. Nancy Schecter, a resident of central Raleigh before, during, and after Fran.

In September 1996, our kids were 7 and 9 years old. Their school teachers said to get flashlights and candles for the hurricane; I reassured them that it wouldn’t come this far inland. We followed the storm’s progress as well as we could during the day, what with work and supper going on. After dinner, we turned on the radio and the television to see Fran’s eye headed our way.

Since our son’s bed was against a fireplace wall, we moved both of our kids to a first-floor corner room, and around 11 o’clock, we made them pallets of blankets on the living room floor. The wind shrieked between the front door and the frame, the power went out, and a series of muffled thumps began.

We checked the attic and there was a branch through the roof. We put a plastic toy bin under the leak and all of us bailed to keep it from overflowing, running to and from the bathroom with pails of water for the next hour. In the room where we’d been watching television, the wall was falling out because the roof had been pushed over. Amid the hurricane, we moved the TV and rolled a piano to a different part of the house.

Trees down between the Schecter’s house and their neighbors. (Image courtesy of Nancy Schecter)

Suddenly, there was absolute calm outside as the eye passed over our neighborhood near Five Points, which had plenty of tall hardwoods. We went outside and saw the front path was blocked by our large oak tree. It turns out that it was exactly 100 years old; we counted the rings! The tree had clipped the gutter on the corner room that the kids had left only an hour earlier.

All of the exterior doors were blocked by treetops, so we couldn’t walk more than a few yards outside. It was like being in a tree house, and we could only look up. The midnight sky was filled with thousands more stars than we’d ever seen in Raleigh. The Milky Way was almost a solid silver band, and there wasn’t a sound. No traffic noise, generators (until the next day, anyway), owls, dogs, mosquitos, or cicadas. And no electric light. Despite the damage all around us, the view of the sky was beautiful.

The silence was broken when our neighbor called out from his porch. His whole house had been moving, and he feared it might not be attached to the foundation. It wasn’t. However, he couldn’t cross the few yards to our house because of all the trees down in our shared driveway. Shortly after that, the rain and wind began to build again, this time coming from the opposite direction on the back side of the eye.

In the morning, neighbors began checking on neighbors, avoiding the downed power lines to climb over huge tree trunks and around giant root balls sticking 15 feet into the air. It had been a wet summer, and combined with the rain from Fran, the trees were toppled all the way down to their roots.

Though dozens of houses around us were destroyed by trees coming through walls and roofs, into bedrooms and nurseries, miraculously, no one was hurt. Sadly, some boys drowned while swimming at Lassiter Mill Dam the next day, and there were some injuries from chainsaw cleanup efforts later.

A tree through the side of a house on Lochmore Road. (Image courtesy of Nancy Schecter)

Our neighborhood had it particularly bad, as combined with the rain and wind, tornadic activity may have occurred right over our house and for a few blocks in every direction. Our friends just outside the destruction zone a few blocks away left town with their babies because they had no power. We used their second car to get to work. It was very strange to leave devastation behind every day and go to completely untouched areas where no one understood what had happened on Beechridge Road.

The power company couldn’t get in for a week, although they kept trying. On day two, we somehow got a package of brownies from my sister in Boston; it was her way of helping from a distance. Hooray for the US Postal Service! The News & Observer was still delivered as well, and Duane Powell’s cartoon of our area was spot-on.

On day three or four, someone from Oxford Road cut gaps in the dozens of trees blocking Beechridge Road, rolling the trunk sections aside to allow for a passage. While we’d never met our neighbors on the road behind us, they spent eight hours clearing our driveway with their backhoe.

We had water — even hot water! — and a camping stove. Our friends loaned us an ice chest, took our laundry, and brought it back folded. Power was finally restored ten days after the storm. Our neighbor’s son owned a tree service and he eventually brought in cranes from three states that stacked trees nine-trunks-per-story in our front yard. Under three of those fallen trees, we found our neighbor’s car, untouched.

Nearby Fallon Park was closed for 18 months after the storm while fallen trees were removed. When it reopened, we organized a party there with music, ice cream, and a fire truck, and the whole neighborhood came to celebrate. Fittingly, we called the party “Goodbye, Fran”.