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Fran Spreads Havoc and Death Across Southeast

Weather: Now-dwindling storm kills 17, causes millions of dollars in damage. Clinton declares disaster areas.

September 07, 1996|ERIC HARRISON and STEPHEN BRAUN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SURF CITY, N.C. — Hurricane Fran shrank Friday to a tropical depression, leaving 17 dead, a million homes and businesses without power, and destruction worth uncounted millions of dollars stretching from Cape Fear, N.C., to the nation's capital.

The storm stranded hundreds of people in this seaside town and along barrier islands off the North Carolina coast. It left Wilmington, N.C., reeling and smashed one of its landmark church steeples. It drove four people into trees along Naked Creek near Elkton, Va., where they hung for hours until a helicopter rescued them.

President Clinton declared major disasters in North Carolina and Virginia, making victims eligible for federal aid. As officials tallied deaths and damage, it became clear that Fran ranked worse than Hurricane Bertha, which killed 10 people in the Caribbean and along the East Coast last July, but not so bad as Hurricane Hugo, which killed 35 in 1989.

Nonetheless, some residents of this and other coastal towns called Fran the worst storm in their experience. The dead, most of them in North Carolina, included a firefighter killed when a tree fell on a firetruck, a 13-year-old boy and two others who died when trees fell on their homes and four motorists killed when trees smashed their vehicles or they collided with fallen trees.

Areas hardest hit by the power blackouts were in the Carolinas and Virginia, particularly eastern North Carolina and central Virginia. The Insurance Information Institute estimated losses to insured owners of private property at $625 million. But this did not count damage and destruction in large areas that could not be surveyed because roads and bridges were still impassible.

Because Fran was 140 miles wide, it took a long time for it to pass, and the battering it delivered seemed incessant.

At the height of the storm, wind gusts as high as 135 mph hammered Topsail Beach and Surf City, towns on a slender offshore peninsula that took some of the worst of the beating.

At least 30 homes on the sandy, pine-studded strand were destroyed and dozens more suffered heavy damage. Some of the shattered houses were dragged several blocks by the punishing winds. Others were left in piles of tangled kindling, floating in a shallow inlet that separates the peninsula from the mainland.

About 600 of the peninsula's 3,000 inhabitants took refuge in a local high school. When wind shattered windows and buckled the roof in one part of the building, they fled to another part.

Funnel Cloud

Surf City Police Chief David Jones and one of his sergeants, Ron Shanahan, stuck it out in their patrol cars as long as they could. Shanahan watched a funnel cloud slowly carve its way up the inlet before slamming into the only bridge connecting the peninsula to the mainland. The bridge was damaged, but it held.

When debris finally blocked all roads, the two men retreated to their police station to ride out the storm. With phone lines down, there were no calls until about 4:30 a.m., when two women made use of a cellular phone.

They were nurses--Kimberly McClamb and Joni Johnson--trapped in a beachfront home that was sliding slowly into the swollen inlet.

The storm made it impossible for Shanahan and Jones to drive. So they walked 3 miles to help the women, clambering over fallen trees and dodging wind-swept debris that flew through the dark, drenching night.

When they arrived, the house was tilting into the inlet at a 45-degree angle. The nurses had retreated to an upstairs bathroom, where McClamb was clutching her beloved cat.

"I don't go unless the cat goes," she shouted.

The officers rescued all three.

The hurricane left U.S. 17, a mainland route along the North Carolina coast, with a new median divider: broken pine boughs, torn siding and shingles.

So many fir trees were down that the roadway smelled like fragrant evergreen. Many of the toppled jack pines were draped with downed power lines--fallen Christmas trees festooned with leaden tinsel.

Forced From Homes

South along the highway, residents of Wrightsville Beach, Carolina Beach and Kure Beach were told that they could not return home for four to seven days. It would take that long, officials said, to restore water, sewer and electrical service.

Police blocked roads, allowing only emergency personnel to use them. Some residents stood on the mainland staring longingly at their yards, houses and boats on the islands offshore.

Bob Citrano spotted his houseboat still docked in a marina along with some other vessels.

"It's floating," he said. "That's about all I can tell."

Behind Citrano, in the unincorporated community of Sea Breeze, a pile of rubble was all that remained of a cinder-block nightclub that had recently been renovated and was set to open.

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