Looking back at Hurricanes Bertha and Fran 20 years later - WECT TV6-WECT.com:News, weather & sports Wilmington, NC

Looking back at Hurricanes Bertha and Fran 20 years later

It's been 20 years since the last major hurricane affected the lower Cape Fear region. (Source: WECT) It's been 20 years since the last major hurricane affected the lower Cape Fear region. (Source: WECT)
WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) -

Bertha. Fran. Two names that many lifelong residents of the lower Cape Fear region will keep in their memories forever.

It's been 20 years since the two storms affected the area, causing hundreds of million of dollars in damages and almost 40 people lost their lives between the two storms.

Bertha became the first hurricane of the 1996 season on July 7, east of the Leeward Islands.

Over the next few days, Bertha accelerated quickly to the northwest and became the first major Atlantic hurricane in July since 1926.

As the storm neared the Bahamas, it slowed and weakened back to category 1 status. As Bertha approached the Carolinas early July 12, the storm accelerated and strengthened back to category 2 status with sustained winds of 105 mph.

The storms made landfall around 4 p.m. between Wrightsville Beach and Topsail Beach. 12 people died and over $300 million worth of damage were attributed to Hurricane Bertha.

"Storm debris, a lot of vegetative debris but not a whole lot of damage to structures and not a whole lot of monetary loss," remembered Chip Jackson, a lifelong New Hanover County resident who has also spent time helping others with disaster during his time working for FEMA. "Again we were fortunate that Bertha passed by with as little damage as we experienced out of it. This area had no significant damage from Bertha other than our usual: high tide, a lot of marsh grass in the yard, things like that, and vegetative debris. But all of that is easily cleaned up in comparison."

Two months later, another storm had its eye set on the southeast North Carolina coastline, this time, from category three Hurricane Fran. Fran was a classic Cape Verde storm.

The initial wave moved off the African coast in late August. On September 3, Fran became a major category 3 hurricane east of the Bahamas. Fran made landfall on the evening of September 6 as a category 3 storm near Bald Head Island.

The storm brought a 12 foot storm surge, in spite of making landfall near low tide. Wind gusts of 105 mph were recorded in Southport and 86 mph in Wilmington.

Many structures in New Hanover and Pender Counties sustained damages; many beachfront homes were destroyed, especially on Topsail Island. Most of the area piers were severely damaged or destroyed. Probably the most visible sign of damage was the First Baptist Church in Wilmington, losing its 197 foot steeple. 

"I guess one thing that I remember about Fran is the wind just gets louder and louder and louder. To a point that it honestly sounds like a freight train just screaming. It doesn't go away until the storm passes," Jackson explained, saying that Fran brought hurricanes to another level. 

Even though Fran caused all kinds of damage and destruction over the area, Jackson recalls high water as the big issue at his location.

"We had six inches of water in the lower part of the house," he said. "So we were in the storm standing in water in the living room. That was kind of scary".

After living through Bertha, Fran, and many storms since, Jackson explained his plan for the next big one, "My decision has been if it is above an upper end category two or three storm, I will follow those signs that we pass everyday that we don't think anything about that say hurricane evacuation route and I will not be here".

It has been a long time since a major hurricane has struck southeast North Carolina. However, as our hurricane history shows, when big hurricanes do decide to return, they can come in bunches.

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