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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Ten years ago tonight: Fran roars ashore

I remember where I was and what I was doing exactly ten years ago right now: at our regular Thursday afternoon Baptist Student Union meeting at Elon College. "Weird" Ed and I had been working since a few weeks before classes started that fall at an on-campus computer store, and all day we'd been using the computers we had on display to watch as Hurricane Fran was creeping toward us. Think it was about 11 that morning that it was pretty obvious to everyone: we were dead in the middle of Fran's sights. I left the store about quarter 'til 5 and by the time I got to the commons room at Virginia dorm, we started getting rain from the outer bands of the storm.

So we had that good home-cooked meal that one of the local churches always provided us on Thursday nights and I left for the apartment around 6. By this point the rain was coming down harder. I stopped at the shopping mall on the way and thought that I could use some reading material to pass what threatened to be a long evening, I bought Tom Clancy's new novel Executive Orders. As I was leaving the mall I saw that it had really started pouring down, so figuring that I needed one anyway I bought an umbrella at Sears, then ran through the parking lot to my car, and went on home.

As the night slowly progressed, the wind began to pick up, until about 11 o'clock it had become a roaring din. By that time I had decided to hit the sack for the night and tried to get some sleep. But being on a second-floor apartment, in a bedroom facing into a courtyard between three other buildings and about five tall trees right out the window... well, I swear I spent every waking moment laying in bed and just knowing that at any second one of those trees was going to come crashing through the wall and kill me instantly. Never did get to read my book, by the way.

So it went throughout the night. And I don't know when it was that sleep finally overtook me: maybe around 3 or 4 in the morning. And my alarm clock woke me up at 6:30 a.m. When it did, I listened and heard nothing else: no wind, no patter of raindrops... and I was thinking "hey that wasn't so bad!" Obviously we still had power. So I got up and took a shower, not even bothering to turn on the television for morning news about the hurricane. Forty-five minutes later I did, and stupid me finally started comprehending the devastation that had wracked us during the night...

It turned out that where we were in Burlington was one very narrow sliver of geography that managed to have electricity going nonstop through the storm. A few minutes into the broadcast they ran at the bottom of the screen that classes at Elon had been cancelled. I woke up my roomie and told him not to bother going into class, that he could sleep all day if he wanted. Right after that is when I looked out into our parking lot: every square inch covered in the green of blown-off leaves and twigs. I went downstairs, got in my car and went to get my usual daily newspaper. The power was out at the Circle K and a cop was directing traffic at the intersection. With the store closed I drove up and down Mebane Street trying to find a place that was open, all along the way shaking my head in disbelief: at least five or six houses had trees fall through the roof. One whole stand of trees that had been there was just... gone. Definitely believe a tornado had touched down there.

I went back to the apartment for a little bit, then headed back out, this time going to Elon. I soon hooked up with "Weird" Ed and we walked around the campus together oggling the damage: there was a tree thrown into the middle of Lake Mary Nell. Another tree had fallen in front of Virginia, another ripped out in front of the auditorium. Someone from the student newspaper took a picture of Ed and I standing at the base of one up-rooted tree: the base was easily three or four feet taller than we were standing.

We went inside the student center, which had been turned into an emergency shelter for any students wanting to take cover there. We ran into a friend of ours named Kendall and he started telling us the craziest thing: that all during the night students were running around out in the storm, sliding down slopes and splashing in the mud. With all the trees that had gotten knocked down it's nothing short of a miracle that nobody got killed that night!

I spent about two hours on campus, then headed back to the apartment, had a frozen pizza for dinner and with nothing else to do tried watching some TV... except the cable was out: the one utility that Fran had foiled for us.

Anyway, that was Hurricane Fran: one of the most devastating that has hit this state in the past quarter-century or so. A few years later we were hit by Floyd, which did a lot more damage but didn't come nearly as inland as Fran did. But all the same, Fran one one heck of an experience to go through. You haven't really lived until you have something like a Category 3 hurricane bearing down on you, especially after watching it track right at you for two or three days previous. Like I've said before, hurricanes are the thermal-moisture dispersion engines from Hell. And to be in the path of one is like looking down the barrel of God's shotgun. It's one of the most dangerous things you can ever go through... but man, I'd be lying if I said that spending the night with Fran didn't give me a rush like few things ever had.


Anonymous said...

Wow....what a powerful account! People around here in the Triangle still assess each other by asking if they went through Fran. When I was a little girl, it was "were you around for Hazel?" (1954) and I think for us, it will be Fran. It still amazes me that it packed that much strength this far inland.

Thanks for visiting my little corner of the blogosphere!