Postcards from Fran: Toppled Trees and the Smell of Sawdust

This account of Hurricane Fran in Raleigh comes from Jim Epps, an instrument technician at the State Climate Office.

In the summer of 1996, I was working in the Marine, Earth, and Atmospheric Sciences Department at NC State University. Being surrounded by atmospheric scientists as we entered the heart of hurricane season, I naturally was swept up in the excitement of tracking tropical storms and checking the National Hurricane Center website for updates.

After a brush from Bertha earlier in the summer, it appeared that an even stronger storm — Fran — was headed straight for the east coast. Although I rarely had to be worried about hurricanes affecting Raleigh, I did have concern for my in-laws that lived near Emerald Isle.

Of course, my concern only increased when Fran’s predicted path showed it coming through Raleigh. On the evening Fran made landfall, I decided it would be best for my wife, our brand new baby daughter, and me to stay at my parents’ house in Raleigh rather than our apartment, just in case.

Trees and limbs down at Jim’s parents’ house in Raleigh. (Photo courtesy of Jim Epps)

In case of what?

I believed that we could have some trees fall, and there is always the possibility of a tornado with a landfalling hurricane. However, I had no idea that sustained 70 mph winds would persist for hours, that our power would be lost early in the evening, and that three trees would fall on my parents’ home.

The first tree hit the house above the room where I had just put my wife and daughter to bed. The tree punctured the roof but not the ceiling. I quickly moved them into a central hallway and placed a kitchen trashcan beneath the light fixture, where water was pouring in due to the heavy rain outside. As the trashcan filled up, I emptied it into a bathtub every 20 minutes.

We huddled with my parents in the hallway listening to the news through a battery-powered radio. The wind howled and I occasionally walked down the hall to look out a window, through which I could see the trees swaying wildly. As the night went on, two more trees fell on the other end of the house but did not puncture the roof.

During an eerie calm in the middle of the night as the eye of the storm passed over, my father and I ventured outside, much to my wife’s dismay. We checked to see if any trees had fallen on our cars and quickly ran back into the house as the winds whipped up on the backside of the storm.

Jim’s brother stands next to an uprooted tree. (Photo courtesy of Jim Epps)

The next morning, I made my way to our apartment to check on our cats that we left there. I was shocked at the sight. Hundreds of trees were down. Not broken, but completely fallen with their entire root systems ripped out of the ground, leaving gaping holes full of muddy water.

Getting out of the neighborhood was anything but easy. I would drive a bit, only to encounter another tree across the entire road and have to turn around. Four days after the storm, power was restored at our apartment. It took two weeks for my parents to get their electricity back, so I brought them hot coffee each morning.

On the streets around town, the sound of chainsaws and the smell of sawdust became the norm. It was a time that I will not soon forget and I am glad that we and others I knew in the Raleigh area were not injured by the storm.