Remembering Hurricane Fran

A look back at a piece we did remembering 20 years since hurricane Fran in the area.
Published: Sep. 4, 2020 at 5:12 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 6, 2022 at 9:29 PM EDT
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HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) - In 1996, Hurricane Fran slammed the East Coast and dumped incredible amounts of rain in the Shenandoah Valley, and the Potomac Highlands. Hurricane Fran strengthened to a Category 3 hurricane and made landfall on September 5th near Wilmington, NC. The storm then moved to the northwest into Virginia on the night of September 5th. Heavy rain continued into September 6.

Not only was the flooding catastrophic in the area, but preceding weather conditions played a role in having a very saturated ground by the time the storm moved into Virginia. Looking back at 1996, it all started with the big blizzard in January where more than 3′ of snow fell across the area. There was also spring flooding and a summer full of thunderstorms, above average rainfall from May-September. As of the end of the August, the yearly rainfall was fourteen inches above average.

Twenty four hours in advance, the National Weather Service issued a strong statement, “Even heavier rains are likely later tonight and Friday as the remnants of Hurricane Fran approach the region. This may result in catastrophic flooding in some locations . . . particularly over the Piedmont and mountains of West Virginia.”

Power outages, flash flooding, water rescues, hundreds of downed trees, and homes destroyed: that’s just some of the devastation caused by the remnants of Fran.

ARCHIVE FOOTAGE

RIVER FLOODING

The Shenandoah River flooded in September of 1996 as 6 to 14 inches of rain fell across the region. On already-saturated ground, rivers quadrupled in size and damaged thousands of homes. Many rivers in this area set their record crest, and these records still stand. Fran is most well known for the extreme river flooding it caused. It’s estimated that 10,000 people had to be evacuated from their homes in Rockingham county.

Flood waters from Hawksbill Creek reached more than 16 feet and nearly covered the top of the football goal post. (photos in the gallery below)

Record river crests for the area
Record river crests for the area(WHSV)

“We really did a good job in preparing, but at the end result, I don’t know that we could have really prepared for what did occur,” said Robbie Symons.

Symons was the Chief of Rockingham County Fire and Rescue at the time of the storm.

“The magnitude of the flooding was so significant, it was hard to imagine the vast devastation, even with advanced warning.”

Because the storm approached from the east, there was a strong upslope flow across the Blue Ridge mountains which intensified rainfall amounts. Widespread rainfall across the area topped 4″-15″. The maximum total rainfall was 15.60″ in Big Meadows, at the Shenandoah National Park.

Winds across the area ranged from 30- 40 mph. At elevations above 2,000′ the winds gusted as high as 79 mph.

Thousands of trees were snapped or uprooted. Over 500 trees fell across the roadway of Skyline Drive alone. The park was closed to visitors for a few weeks.

Hurricane Fran, 1996
Hurricane Fran, 1996(WHSV)

Due to the timing during harvest season, many farmers lost all of their crops as the precious topsoil was completely washed away. Millions of dollars were lost in agriculture in ruined fields and crops. Because so many roads and bridges were washed out and closed, isolated communities were cutoff.

Widespread flash flooding also struck Pendleton and Hardy counties. In West Virginia, damage was excessive, especially along the South Branch Potomac. In Hardy County, most of the county roads were closed due to being washed out. Wells were damaged and many remained unusable months later due to bacteria contamination.

River sand and mud also covered streets and there were several landslides.

LOCAL DEATHS

Two people in Augusta county were swept away while trying to cross a flooded bridge. One person in Highland county drowned when trying to cross a flooded area. One person in Pendleton county drowned while driving their car into flood waters.

One person in Grant county drowned when they drive their tractor into flood waters. Two additional people died in Virginia in Montgomery county as their car got swept away by flood waters. the Virginia death toll, 7 people.

Flood waters destroyed about 300 homes in Virginia. There were about 100 water rescues across the state. In Rockingham county about 10,000 people were evacuated from their homes.

Because the maximum rainfall of 16″ (in 24 hours) was across the mountain at Skyline Drive, that water drained into the Valley below, in addition to nearly 10″ of rain falling in Page county. Hawksbill creeks became a raging river. The powerful current forced homes off their foundation. Flood waters were so high, it reached nearly to the top of the high school football stadium goal post. That puts the water at about 16′ deep.

In Harriston in Augusta county, the creeks overflowed its banks which flooded about a dozen mobile homes. There was also a kerosene spill from the rising water.

In Shenandoah county rising flood waters damaged or destroyed dozens of homes. Several roads were flooded out as well.

AFTER THE STORM

A number of changes have been made in the Valley since the storm. In addition to flood-mitigation projects , several programs were put into place as a result of the flooding from Fran in 1996. The swift water rescue team was created. Rockingham County was also one of the first counties in the state to implement an animal disaster shelter program. Pets would be housed at the fairgrounds. This program is still available if a disaster were to happen, and people can bring their pets.

Check out the photo gallery below. If you have storm photos (from this or other storms) you’d like to share with us, you can upload those here:

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