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Fran Spreads Havoc and Death Across Southeast

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

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.

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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.

Mike Harrison’s eyes grew red and filled with tears as he looked at what remained of the enterprise into which he and a friend, Rico Bryant, had sunk their savings. “I still don’t even believe it, to tell you the truth,” said Harrison, 24, who said the pair had invested $4,000 to restore the old structure. It was not insured.

Their dream, he said, had been to help restore the declining community of Sea Breeze to its former glory. In the days of segregation, it had been a thriving resort for African Americans. Black soldiers from nearby Ft. Bragg and Camp Lejeune and blacks from Wilmington and other nearby cities kept its nightclubs jumping.

But as time passed, so did the fashion. Some of the clubs were shuttered, and summer cottages became year-round homes for blacks whose incomes were dwarfed by those on the affluent barrier islands.

Harrison’s club was to have been one of the few new businesses to open in Sea Breeze in quite a while, said Emanuel Singletary, who operates a nearby nightclub that was flooded in the storm.

Singletary said he had hoped the new nightclub would attract younger people to the area. But now, because of the storm, which Singletary and others said caused more damage in the community than any storm since Hurricane Hazel in 1954, the town of Sea Breeze has been delivered another setback.

Looking Back

If the past is any guide, Singletary said, the area would be overlooked when aid was dispersed. Not only is the area unincorporated, he said, but it also has no political influence. Because few of the business owners and residents can afford insurance, disasters such as Fran affect them more than those in other areas.

“I’ve seen quite a few [hurricanes], but this is the worst ever,” Singletary said. Water rose almost 3 feet in his nightclub. He said he would not be able to fully assess the damage until electricity was restored.

Wrightsville Beach, on an offshore island, was closed to traffic, including some 2,500 residents who wanted to assess the destruction. Ed Taylor, the assistant town manager, said he knew of severe utility damage, a lot of downed power lines and contamination of the town water system.

A handful of residents stayed on the island and insisted on riding out the storm.

“Foolish,” Taylor said.

At the Bridge Tender Marina, storm surges lifted a dozen sailboats out of the water and pushed several down a road toward Wilmington. One sloop came to rest in a parking lot at Babies Hospital, a now-closed brick landmark built in 1920.

Rocky Fallon, 47, who works at the Fishhouse Grill, said he and others stayed inside the restaurant until 7 p.m. EDT Thursday, as the full fury of the storm began. Water inside the building, he said, was 2 feet deep.

Boats and a floating dock seemed to be flying all over.

Finally, Fallon said, there was simply nothing more to do, “so we just left.”

Taking in the damage on Friday, he simply shook his head. “It’s one of those things you know when you live here: We’re going to have hurricanes.”

In Southport, N.C., just inland from Cape Fear, where Fran made landfall late Thursday, Connie Ledgett has lived in a small frame house near the mouth of the Cape Fear River for 33 years. This was the first time she abandoned her home to a hurricane.

Projections were for storm surges of up to 16 feet.

So she spent Thursday night at the home of a friend. To her relief, she learned Friday that all Fran had done was sweep away about 8 feet of her backyard, wash her gazebo into a marsh, blow off a few shingles and damage her garage door.

Otherwise, her home was intact.

Up the Cape Fear River, the city of Wilmington buzzed with the sound of chain saws clearing roadways of fallen trees. Hundreds of residents queued up at gasoline stations and stores selling ice.

One of two steeples on the downtown First Baptist Church lay in a pile of red bricks and metal. Both had survived glancing blows from Hurricane Arthur early in the season and Hurricane Bertha in July.

But Fran was too much. One of them, 197 feet tall and 126 years old, tumbled down.

Its remains lay in the street, attracting residents and tourists who stopped to shoot videos and kick at the debris. The Rev. Michael Queen, pastor of the church for 11 years, said the steeple had undergone $8,500 worth of repairs, most of them cosmetic, after Bertha.

“This fills me with a sense of profound sadness,” Queen said. “But I have also heard that at least nine people died in North Carolina, and the thought of a steeple in the street pales in comparison to that.”

On a bulletin board in front of the church was the title of last Sunday’s sermon: “All in a Day’s Work.”

“That,” Queen said, “seems a proper epitaph.”

Loss of Power

Down the street in an emergency operations center, spokesman Bill Clontz said 95% of the 140,000 people in Hanover County were without power. It would take several days, he said, for electricity to be restored.

“After Bertha, we were without power for two or three days,” Clontz said. “This is different. We’ve taken a real hit.”

Clontz and others in Wilmington pondered their bad luck. First was Arthur. Then Bertha. Now this. “I’ve heard,” Clontz said, "[that] we’re just a magnet.”

From Wilmington, Fran spun farther up the Cape Fear River, following Interstate 40 for several miles, damaging several towns and dumping heavy rain.

It left the highway lined with fallen pine trees as well. Water covered all four lanes in two spots south of Burgaw, N.C., and caused a mile-long backup of eastbound traffic as residents tried to return to their homes.

In all, 6 miles of Interstate 40 were closed.

Additionally, Interstate 85 was closed southbound from Greensboro because of flooding from the Hall River, and many two-lane roads in the Raleigh-Durham area were closed because of fallen trees and power lines.

In the town of Kenansville, wind peeled off metal and left a bald dome atop the Duplin County Courthouse.

Small businesses nearby were littered with broken glass and debris.

In Raleigh, the hurricane damaged the North Carolina governor’s mansion and knocked out power in the Capitol.

Mark Van Sciver, spokesman for a state emergency response team, said the Capitol was operating on power from a single generator. A curfew went into effect at 10:30 p.m. EDT, he said, to keep motorists off the streets.

Downed trees made driving dangerous after dark, Van Sciver said. “Our people are saying, ‘Stay home. Don’t go out.’ ”

Farther to the north, Fran poured rain on Virginia at the rate of 2 to 3 inches an hour.

“It’s been a long while since we’ve had rain like this,” said Barry Martin, deputy coordinator of emergency services in Lynchburg, a city of 65,000.

About 6,000 homes were without power, Martin said. By midday Friday, he said, city officials were evacuating people from all low-lying areas and busing them to shelters.

Mudslide Fears

The biggest fear, Martin said, was mudslides, caused by supersaturated soil.

At the height of the storm, he said, the Lynchburg phone system nearly collapsed.

“The phone company’s generator burned out, and we were operating on battery power,” he said. “They got the power restored only minutes before the batteries would have shut down.

“That was a narrow escape.”

Still farther north in Virginia, flash floods rolled through the hills and hollows. Rescue workers struggled in boats, helicopters and military vehicles to reach people who suddenly found themselves in danger.

Up to 11 inches of rain rushed down mountainsides into creeks, streams and rivers still sodden from flooding earlier in the week, when the state got 5 inches of rain, and now many of the people in the hollows were caught unaware.

“They just waited too long,” Leon Richard, emergency coordinator in Page County, told the Associated Press. “When they saw the streams rising, they should have gotten out.”

Water topped reservoirs and overflowed. The town of Elkton, in the westen foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, turned into an island. Flooding covered all roads out.

The town of Luray was split in half.

At 10 a.m. EDT, two men climbed a tree to escape flooding along Naked Creek. Two others in an inflatable raft tried to rescue them, the AP said, and they were stranded in a nearby tree. A Coast Guard helicopter finally rescued all four about 7 p.m.

Others were stranded on a car and the roof of a barn. They too were finally rescued.

Near Danville, Va., firefighters saved a man from his flooded home when they spotted a candle he was waving in an upstairs window.

“We saw the candle moving, so we knew he was alive,” Fire Chief Mike Neal told the AP. “The water could easily have wiped away the foundation and sent the house down the creek.”

At the top of the state, in historic Old Town Alexandria, across the Potomac River from Washington, city emergency workers combed the shopping district distributing flood warnings and dispensing sandbags.

Boat owners at the Old Dominion Boat Club checked moorings to be sure their craft would ride out the flood. Among boats bobbing like corks on the Potomac was the Sequoia, a yacht used by Richard Nixon when he was president.

Employees at the Seaport Inn restaurant, on the water’s edge, piled sandbags into a wall and applied plastic to the doors and windows.

At the riverfront Torpedo Factory Art Center, levels of previous floods on the Potomac are marked in stone along the side of the building. Artists and workers were evacuated so floodgates could be activated.

But there was little concern that the Potomac would leave a record hash mark.

“The water has never actually gotten up to the door and tested the [flood] gates,” said Mary Alyce Delaplane, administrator of the center. “We’re hoping we are not going to be put through the acid test.”

Harrison reported from Sea Breeze and Southport and Braun from Surf City. Times staff writers James Bornemeier and Gebe Martinez in Washington, Eric Malnic and Richard E. Meyer in Los Angeles, special correspondent Mike Clary in Wilmington and researcher Edith Stanley in Atlanta contributed to this story.


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