Track of Hurricane Fran.

Environmental Impact

One of NOAA's hurricane hunters—a Lockheed WP-3D Orion aircraft named Miss Piggy—lands in Wilmington.

Donna Kain, RENCI at ECU.

An aerial view of overwash and erosion at North Topsail Beach.


Flood waters surround this NC house.

D.A. Harned, USGS.

Several uprooted trees have fallen on this NC home.

Dave Gatley, FEMA News Photo.

At the time, Fran was “one of the most intensely studied hurricanes in history” (Barnes, 175). NOAA’s hurricane hunter aircraft flew 17 missions through the storm collecting valuable weather data. Usually these missions are flown while the hurricane is still over the ocean, but Fran was the first storm to be flown through while it was over land. (USA Today reporter Jack Williams was on one of those flights and tells about his experience here.) Fran was also the first time scientists were able to deploy weather buoys in the water ahead of the storm, a practice that is now common.

All these instruments confirmed that Fran was a powerful storm. Wind gusts over 120 miles per hour were reported in Frying Pan Shoals and Figure Eight Island, and sustained winds ranged from 90 to 115 miles per hour. Though Fran was less intense than either Hugo or Andrew, it was twice their size. Thus Fran remained strong even after making landfall, and hurricane-strength winds were felt as far inland as Durham. These powerful winds likely spawned tornados, but this is unconfirmed since it would have been difficult to distinguish a tornado’s narrow path of destruction from the widespread general destruction already caused by the hurricane itself.

Those living on the beaches were vulnerable also to Fran’s storm surge. At Wrightsville Beach, Fran’s storm surge was equal to Hurricane Hazel’s in 1954. Carolina Beach was six feet underwater and houses were filled with several feet of sand. Heavy beach erosion also affected Emerald Isle and Figure Eight Island where Hurricane Bertha had destroyed many sand dunes just one month before Fran.

On Topsail Island, hundreds of old car tires had been used to build an artificial reef five miles offshore, but Fran had destroyed the reef and scattered the tires along the beaches. Other debris, from lumber to sewage, also littered the island. A local conservationist called it an ecological disaster.

Winds weren’t the only element of Fran that reached inland. As Fran moved over Raleigh, it began to collapse and dumped 9 inches of rain in the area. Crabtree Creek rose 16 feet almost overnight, cresting at 7 feet above flood stage. The resulting flooding caused 15 dams to breach or fail, and raw sewage from a plant in North Durham flooded into Raleigh’s drinking water in Falls Lake.

This lake was already swollen with record levels of water, and the US Army Corp of Engineers worried that its dam would fail. To relieve the pressure on the dam, the Corp increased the water flow through the dam from 150 cubic feet per second to 6,400 cubic feet per second. The dam survived, but the release of water would cause flooding days later in Smithfield, Clayton, and Kinston.

The combination of wind and rain also had a negative impact on North Carolina’s plant life. Forests in Atlantic Beach, Pine Knoll Shores, and Emerald Isle were all weakened by salt spray. This left the trees vulnerable to southern pine beetles that ravaged the forests the following year. Some residents spent more money on tree removal than they did on other hurricane repairs.

Thousands of inland trees also fell to Fran’s fury. The campus of North Carolina State University lost 250 trees alone. In total, 8.2 million acres of forest were damaged by Fran, including 85% of the trees along the coast and 50% of the trees in Raleigh.

All dollar amounts have been adjusted for inflation as of 2009.