The Dicksons spent Labor Day weekend at the beach with the first part of the holiday consumed by what was left of Hurricane Hermine. Winds blew more than a breeze and less than a nor’easter, but there was plenty of water hitting windows and pooling on low beach roads. A friend texted in a panic that her daughter was heading our way in a low-slung sedan and could not get where she was going because of standing water. I texted back that a Precious Jewel was headed to the rescue in a giant pickup, but the daughter had already been rescued by a cousin.
Such is the stuff of storms — hurricanes and otherwise — that strike North Carolina in the fall.
The weekend also brought back memories of Hurricane Fran, which cut a wide swath across the Tar Heel state 20 years ago this month, and which is remembered in our neck of the woods as the storm of a generation. The day before the storm struck, half a million people evacuated North Carolina’s barrier islands, just in the nick of time. Fran came ashore at the mouth of the Cape Fear and ultimately covered about 225 miles in our state, devastating much in her path, including our one-block street in Haymount. More than half of the 15 houses on our street had trees through their roofs, and one next door to us had two — one from the back yard and one from the front. Our neighbors across the street did a neighborly thing and sent a cooler of ice over to the two-tree family, only to realize later that they had dispatched their teenaged son on this errand across live PWC wires brought down by the storm.
The Dicksons were spared a tree through the roof, although we did lose a huge magnolia branch that later had to be chopped up and hauled away. The Precious Jewels’ babysitter, who spent the long night of Fran in our basement praying with her own daughter and several foster children took full credit for our good fortune. In her assessment, the reason the Dicksons escaped a tree through the roof and the neighbors did not was because the babysitter next door — her friend and sometime rival — simply did not pray hard enough!
Our power went out about midnight and was out for six long days in sweltering humidity, but we were luckier than many who were powerless longer. I remember turning onto our street on the sixth day and passing a utility truck from Florida and realizing its crew had restored our electricity. I blew those men kisses in full daylight in front of God and country.
The Dickson family beach house, which had survived Hurricane Hazel —t he 1954 storm of its generation, came through Fran as well, but far from unscathed. The new roof and porch are now 20 years young, and that old house barely noticed Hermine.
Fran took 37 human lives, 24 of them in North Carolina, and causing $11billion in today’s dollars in damages to homes, businesses, infrastructure, crops and timber. At one point in the storm, radar images showed Fran’s winds and rains covering two-thirds of our state. She cut new inlets along the coast and reminded older North Carolinians and taught newer ones that when Mother Nature goes on a tear, there is not much to do but watch and keep our fingers crossed, hopefully from afar. Three years later, Hurricane Floyd flooded much of eastern North Carolina and was deadlier, but Fran remains one of the worst natural disasters to hit our state.
Other storms have come since Fran, of course, but none so destructive. In the intervening twenty years, North Carolina has changed as well. Brunswick County at the mouth of the Cape Fear where Fran rolled in has almost doubled its population since 1996, and about 1 million people now live in the 18 counties along North Carolina’s ocean and coastal waterways.
Remember, too, that our little tree-struck street was not in a coastal county, proof that hurricanes do not always stay along the coast. That street is in central Fayetteville in Cumberland County. Wake and other Piedmont counties suffered with Fran as well. In 1996, North Carolina’s population was 7.5 million people and today we have more than 10 million residents. Many of those people have never experienced a Hermine, much less a Fran, something that rightfully keeps North Carolina’s emergency responders awake nights.
No one knows what the 2016 hurricane season will bring post-Hermine, but here is some food for thought. North Carolina has not been hit by a Category 3 or higher storm since Fran, twenty years ago. That does not mean, of course, that a Category 3, 4, or even 5, will arrive this season, but it does mean that statistically, North Carolina has been on a long lucky streak.
The odds of that streak lasting indefinitely are slim to none.