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20 years later: North Carolina residents recall widespread destruction from Hurricane Fran

One of the most intense and destructive storms in North Carolina's history made landfall on Sept. 5, 1996, when Hurricane Fran left a significant swath of damage across the state.

A Category 3 storm when it made landfall near the tip of Cape Fear, Fran was the second powerful hurricane that took aim at the Carolinas during the summer of 1996. Just two months earlier, Bertha had pummeled part of the state leaving wreckage that was still being cleaned up when Fran arrived.

While Fran battered the coastline, its damaging reach extended far inland, as hurricane-force winds were reported in Raleigh, damaging numerous historical buildings, according to the National Weather Service (NWS).

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For Mike Sprayberry, the director of emergency management for North Carolina, it was his first time directly dealing with a hurricane.

Sprayberry, 61, was a resident of Clinton, located in central North Carolina about an hour south of Raleigh. At the time he was a major in the North Carolina National Guard and had been getting ready to assist with storm recovery when Fran came ashore.

Sprayberry felt that since he didn't live along the coast, he was preparing for wind and rain but nothing as severe as what he would experience. Soon enough, his roof had been ripped apart and water was seeping into his house.

"We had been told that we were in the path of the storm, but I guess it just didn't really register with us that the impact wasn't going to be as significant as it was," he said.

AccuWeather Social Media Manager Jesse Ferrell was living in Raleigh when Fran struck.

Like Sprayberry, Ferrell was surprised at how bad the damage was inland, especially the number of trees that had been felled. Fran provided Ferrell his first opportunity to storm chase during a hurricane, but the winds were so fierce, he didn't make it as far as he planned.

"I never made it to the coast because there was so much wind damage and so little power that night. Instead I drove back up to Raleigh and Hurricane Fran followed me back," Ferrell said. "I tried to drive home in the middle of the night but so many roads were closed, I thought I might never be able to cross the city successfully."

As part of his responsibilities in the National Guard, Sprayberry had to help set up the makeshift operations center at the armory. He chose to leave in the middle of the storm, which was "probably not he smartest" thing he'd ever done, he said, as he had to navigate through live wires, downed trees and sheets of rain.

First responders and members of the national guard stayed busy, going door-to-door doing wellness checks and clearing roadways as quickly as they could with the goal of getting schools reopened as soon as possible.

The amount of debris, damaged homes and toppled trees was eye-opening for a lot of people.

"In the central part of the state, folks just hadn't seen that much [damage]. Really, I'd never seen anything like that," Sprayberry said.

At the time, Fran was the costliest and most destructive in the state's history, but it was surpassed by Hurricane Floyd in September 1999, according to WRAL in Raleigh.

"It was a huge event, it took us a long time to recover from it," Sprayberry said.

The damage left behind was so extensive, the NWS retired the name Fran from its hurricane list, a practice reserved for storms that achieve a level of notoriety for the amount of destruction they cause.

Fran's impacts were not limited to the Carolinas. Heavy rainfall triggered damaging flash flooding in West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, according to the NWS.

While the cleanup was arduous and the damage costly, Sprayberry, who's been the state's emergency management director since 2013, said he always remembers how people came together to assist others.

"I just remember how everybody pulled together, even folks that, they didn't have much, but they were willing to give what they had to others," Sprayberry said. "[It was] really amazing. I had never been in a disaster before and so I thought it was pretty extraordinary."


Have questions, comments, or a story to share? Email Kevin Byrne at Kevin.Byrne@accuweather.com, follow him on Twitter at @Accu_Kevin. Follow us @breakingweather, or on Facebook