I’m reminded today that 21 years ago North Carolina was hunkered down for a major storm that would — following Hurricane Bertha in July — alter the state’s coastal landscape and cause heavy damage inland — particularly in Raleigh. Burlington and Alamance County didn’t escape unscathed either. It was Hurricane Fran. It went on and on from Sept. 5 and into Sept. 6 in 1996.
Earlier this week, massive Hurricane Irma looked like it might take the 1996 paths of Bertha and Fran. Today it’s a little less certain. Frankly it could go in any direction, although a big curve that misses the U.S. seems unlikely at this point. Folks should be ready.
Today, on Fran’s anniversary, I share a few thoughts about the hurricane summer of 1996 in North Carolina, when I lived and worked on the coast. We were consumed by storms that summer, when beach wreckage, dismantled roofs and downed trees were the norm.
By the time Sept. 5, 1996 arrived we were already exhausted, beat, dog tired and any other way you might want to describe a condition known in Eastern North Carolina as “wore slap out.”
Emotionally we were spent, too. Tension was high. Cranky was a way of life.
Hurricane Bertha on July 12 had swallowed whole most of what we considered summer. The staff at the Jacksonville Daily News, where I was managing editor at the time, wrote about that storm almost from the time it spun off the coast of Africa until its arrival up our gut in the area between Wilmington and Topsail Island. Bertha wasn’t an epic hurricane, but it was enough for us. It was a nasty thing that brought winds of right at 100 mph and tornadoes every 10 minutes. Bertha left a mark. It could be seen in mangled signs, flattened dunes, massive beach erosion, coastal flooding, doomed crops and almost enough downed trees to fill a landfill. It had been more than 20 years since a direct hit from a landfalling hurricane in that part of the N.C. coast. A lot of trees grow to maturity in that time. Bertha took most if not all of them.
We were still writing about that storm, its damage and how to get rid of all the debris as Labor Day approached. Some of us were still cleaning up our own homes and yards. And, of course, there were pitfalls that had nothing to do with the storm. One of our best reporters, the one who would become my spouse a little more than a year later, injured herself in a softball game and was on crutches until knee surgery could be scheduled. Somewhere in there Roselee was also traumatized when dogs owned by someone about a half-mile away wound up in her dad’s yard where they tore into the screened in back porch and murdered her two cats, Newt and Haley.
That was a bad day, a telephone call I don’t want to relive.
As the calendar moved to Sept. 5, we were not only tired but in transition. We weathered Bertha with two full-time reporting positions open, slots that were thankfully filled by two of the most capable summer interns I’ve worked with before or since. But C. Mark Brinkley and Diana D’Abruzzo had returned to campus at Marshall and UNC, respectively. Perhaps no interns have ever had a more challenging summer than they did. Both were called upon to fill beats usually held by full-time reporters. Both worked almost non-stop before and after Hurricane Bertha. Both rendered phenomenal work, especially under those conditions. Both, at one time or another, became award-winning full-time staffers and close friends to this very minute.
As August began to close, we hired two reporters back to back. Francine Sawyer, a longtime journalist came aboard first, toward the end of August. Chris Powell joined on around Sept. 1. He was a rookie with a graduate degree in journalism from Florida State. He was also about to have the toughest first week a reporter could face.
So the last thing our staff wanted to see was another hurricane. Yet here we were. It was deja vu all over again.
This one was called Hurricane Fran and if anything it was larger and potentially more fierce than Bertha. In the final days before projected landfall somewhere between Georgia and Virginia, representatives from Carolina Power and Light — now a part of Duke Energy — came by the office to talk to our editor, Elliott Potter. They told Elliott that Fran, at that time a burgeoning category 3 storm, would be problematic in terms of losing and restoring power. The patchwork put in place after Hurricane Bertha — I was without power in downtown Swansboro for five days then — wouldn’t hold. Transmission lines would be jeopardized for miles. In short, power would be lost quickly and perhaps for some time. They thought it would be good to let readers know.
So we did.
Our planning for landfall took shape. We hoped to be better prepared than we were for Hurricane Bertha, during those naive days when we thought it might be possible to publish during a storm. On July 12 the storm arrived in late morning and trapped us at the office –in the dark without power or food — until about 10 that night when it was finally safe to drive to our homes, which were equally dark. We wound up not producing a thing that day except anxiety and hunger. We were forced to come in early the following day, a Saturday, and publish two newspapers — one in the morning and another that night. Fortunately, that part of the plan succeeded. We had power when we arrived the next day.
But no one wanted to go through a day like that again.
For Fran, we planned on producing a newspaper for Saturday publication but early on Friday afternoon, ahead of the storm which was supposed to make landfall later that night. We targeted for a press run at between 5:30 and 6 p.m. We made our deadline and headed for Swansboro to stay at Roselee’s dad’s house. We were joined there by Roselee’s sister Annmarie, her husband Ross and their children Rossi and Ariel. Papa Joe had a big pot of spaghetti ready for us when we got there. But before we ate, Elliott called. The power went out at the office just as the press was about to run.
Shortly after that we lost power in Swansboro, too.
It would be a long night.
A hurricane in the daytime is no fun but a hurricane after nightfall can be terrifying. The sounds are intense — like sitting by a train track with non-stop traffic for eight hours. We could hear the snap of trees and foliage in the woods. Things tumbled across the roof. It was easy to tell that damage was occurring but where and how much and was it a threat to the house where we sought safe haven? I remember Papa Joe moving his reclining chair up against a large picture window in his living room and plopping himself down in order to somehow keep the storm from breaking through.
It seemed Hurricane Fran would never end. The kids were able to get some sleep, but I’m not sure the adults got much. We would occasionally look outside in the pitch-blackness to see if we could identify anything. We listened to a battery-operated radio. A local FM station had a generator and just took calls from the public sharing stories about what was going on as Fran roared through. I took notes on things we might need to follow when we returned to the office at daybreak.
I took a cold shower because it was the only option available and we headed to Jacksonville not long after first light. But there was no power when we got to the office and there wouldn’t be any for several hours. The front part of our building was being renovated at the time, so the entrance was a construction site. Saw horses barricaded that part of the building. Ladders and other supplies were strewn about. Several ceiling panels in the newsroom had been removed and computer wires dangled down. Even though it was light outside, the windowless newsroom was like a cave. I lit a large red candle that was on my desk — something that became known as the “Hurricane Candle” by our receptionist Anita Perrin (I think she still has it). It supplied enough illumination for about one-square foot, max.
I was among the first newsroom arrivals. I sent Roselee on crutches to downtown Swansboro which had been underwater an hour or two before. She was met there by R.D. Benedict, a photographer and photo technician at the Daily News who lost a leg as a child due to cancer. Both of our staff members covering Swansboro were on crutches during a crazy debris-strewn scene on the waterfront. The Christmas House, a gift shop specializing in holiday doodads, had been moved from its setting on the White Oak River by flooding. People were scrambling to grab any stray ornaments to take home as a police officer barked on a bullhorn, “Put the ornaments down!”
Meanwhile back at the office, one of our corporate presidents and the head of the community dailies division was calling every few minutes. Jon Segal wanted to speak to our publisher Charlie Fischer and get a damage assessment. Problem was, Charlie wasn’t there yet. I kept answering the phone and finding new and creative ways to tell Jon that the publisher was otherwise occupied without telling him that Charlie was actually AWOL.
As reporters were out gathering information for the slew of stories we would produce that day — flooding at the beaches, new inlets cut across Topsail Island, homes taken out to sea, flooding in Richlands, fatalities (Marines who thought a hurricane party at North Topsail might be fun — bad idea, one was found in a tree), aerial photos, ground photos — I was coordinating events at our office. Elliott was trying to figure out when or if we might get power restored and making arrangements with the New Bern Sun Journal to produce our newspaper there then haul the newspapers back here for delivery. It was a logistical jigsaw puzzle dictated by the need for electricity.
A lot of what happened that day is a blur but I clearly recall that sometime in the early afternoon two reporters — one from the Boston Globe and one from the New York Times — walked through our newsroom. They were hoping it would be a place where they could camp for a while, file stories and maybe find sustenance. One quick look told them otherwise.
“Is this hurricane damage?” one asked looking at the hanging wires and saw horses at in-progress construction at the front entrance.
I assured them that was not the case. “We work under these conditions every day,” I told them.
They beat a hasty retreat.
How we got the newspaper produced is a lesson in emergency teamwork. Elliott took a team to New Bern that included editors, copydesk staff and a photographer with film to process. I remained in Jacksonville. Our reporters wrote stories in longhand and we dictated the copy to our staff members who went to New Bern. I did a lot of reading that afternoon over the phone — in Elliott’s office — because it had a window. Everybody stepped up that day. No one complained. The crankiness that enveloped the staff in the preceding weeks was put aside. There was work to do. When I look back, it should have been a proud moment. But it was largely overshadowed by the relief that the job was done and finished. By the time the staff triumphantly returned from the Sun Journal with newspapers, we mostly wanted to go home and eat, maybe get some sleep.
On Sept. 6 we all went home even more exhausted than we were on Sept. 5. And we also knew that in 12 hours or so, we would have to come in and do it again.