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Preliminary Report
Hurricane Fran
23 August - 8 September 1996

Max Mayfield
National Hurricane Center
10 October 1996

Tropical Storm Arthur
Hurricane Bertha
Hurricane Cesar
Hurricane Dolly
Hurricane Edouard
Hurricane Fran
Tropical Storm Gustav
Hurricane Hortense
Hurricane Isidore
Tropical Storm Josephine
Tropical Storm Kyle
Hurricane Lili
Hurricane Marco


 Colorized infrared image of Hurricane Fran as part of a triple tropical cyclone outbreak. (98K GIF)


 Colorized infrared image of Hurricane Fran near peak intensity east of the northern Bahamas and Florida. (87K GIF)

[1996 Atlantic Hurricane Season]

Fran was a Cape Verde hurricane that moved across the Atlantic during the peak of the hurricane season. It made landfall on the North Carolina coast as a category three hurricane on the Saffir/Simpson Hurricane Scale, resulting in significant storm surge flooding on the North Carolina coast, widespread wind damage over North Carolina and Virginia, and extensive flooding from the Carolinas to Pennsylvania.

a. Synoptic History

Hurricane Fran formed from a tropical wave that emerged from the west coast of Africa on 22 August. Deep convection associated with the wave was organized in a banding-type pattern and animation of satellite images suggested a cyclonic circulation. Ship reports soon confirmed that the circulation was on the surface. The post-analysis "best track" in Figure 1 (86K GIF) shows that the system became a tropical depression just southeast of the Cape Verde Islands at 1200 UTC 23 August. Best track position, central pressure and maximum one-minute sustained wind speed are listed for every six hours in Table 1.

The tropical depression moved westward near 15 knots for the next few days without significant development. This lack of development may be attributed, in part, to disrupted low-level inflow due to the large and powerful Hurricane Edouard which was centered about 750 n mi to the west-northwest. Satellite intensity estimates suggest that the depression became Tropical Storm Fran at 1200 UTC 27 August while located about 900 n mi east of the Lesser Antilles.

Fran began to track toward the west-northwest in the wake of Hurricane Edouard. Deep convection became more concentrated and Fran is estimated to have reached hurricane status at 0000 UTC 29 August while centered about 400 n mi east of the Leeward Islands. The center of Fran was about 150 n mi to the northeast of the Leeward Islands near 1200 UTC 30 August.

The tropical cyclone weakened to just below hurricane strength later on the 30th, possibly due to the low-level inflow being disrupted again by Edouard. About this time, changing steering currents caused Fran to turn toward the northwest and slow to about 5 knots.

By 1200 UTC 31 August, as Edouard moved farther away, Fran had regained hurricane strength. As Hurricane Edouard moved northward off the U.S. mid-Atlantic coast, the subtropical ridge became better established to the north of Fran, causing Fran to resume a west-northwestward motion with an increased forward speed of about 10 knots. Fran moved on a track roughly parallel to the Bahama Islands with the eye remaining a little more than 100 n mi to the northeast of the islands.

Fran strengthened to a category three hurricane by the time it was northeast of the central Bahamas on 4 September. The powerful tropical cyclone began to be influenced by a cyclonic circulation centered over Tennessee that was most pronounced in mid to upper levels of the atmosphere. Fran was steered by the resulting flow around the low over Tennessee and the western extension of the subtropical ridge over the northwest Atlantic. The hurricane gradually turned toward the northwest to north- northwest and increased in forward speed.

The minimum central pressure dropped to 946 mb and maximum sustained surface winds reached 105 knots, Fran's peak intensity, near 0000 UTC 5 September when the hurricane was centered about 250 n mi east of the Florida east coast.

Fran was moving northward near 15 knots when it made landfall on the North Carolina coast. The center moved over the Cape Fear area around 0030 UTC 6 September, but the circulation and radius of maximum winds were large and hurricane force winds likely extended over much of the North Carolina coastal areas of Brunswick, New Hanover, Pender, Onslow and Carteret counties. At landfall, the minimum central pressure is estimated at 954 mb and the maximum sustained surface winds are estimated at 100 knots. The strongest winds likely occurred in streaks within the deep convective areas north and northeast of the center.

Fran weakened to a tropical storm while centered over central North Carolina and subsequently to a tropical depression while moving through Virginia. The tropical cyclone gradually lost its warm core as it moved over the eastern Great Lakes and became extratropical near 0000 UTC 9 September while centered over southern Ontario. The remnants of Fran were absorbed into a frontal system near 0600 UTC 10 September.

b. Meteorological Statistics

Figures 2 (57K GIF) and 3 (78K GIF) show the curves of minimum central sea-level pressure and maximum one-minute "surface" wind speed, respectively, as a function of time. The observations on which the curves are based are also plotted and consist of aircraft reconnaissance data and Dvorak-technique estimates using satellite imagery, as well as synoptic fixes after landfall. According to international agreements within the world meteorological community, the surface wind is actually the wind representative of 33 feet (10 meters) above the ground.

All operational aircraft reconnaissance flights into Fran were provided by the U.S. Air Force Reserves. These "Hurricane Hunters" made 71 center fixes during 17 flights. The minimum central pressure reported by aircraft was 946 mb at 2306 UTC 4 September. A circular eye with a diameter of 25 n mi was observed on aircraft radar at this time. The 946 mb minimum pressure was measured by dropsonde and was the lowest pressure reported during Fran's existence. The maximum winds of 114 knots from a flight level of 700 mb (near 10,000 feet) were measured about 6 hours prior to the 946 mb pressure report. Flight-level winds in excess of 100 knots were reported several times during the two days prior to landfall. 113-knot winds were reported from aircraft 52 n mi east of the hurricane center at 2314 UTC 5 September, and 107-knot winds were reported 41 n mi northeast of the center at the time of landfall. However, the core of the hurricane weakened somewhat on radar presentations, and a closed eyewall was not reported by aircraft during the two hours prior to the center moving onshore.

Objective intensity estimates from digital infrared satellite imagery peaked near the time that the minimum central pressure was reported by reconnaissance aircraft.

The WSR-88D (Weather Surveillance Radar - 1988 Doppler) at Wilmington, North Carolina, measured winds in excess of 120 knots aloft as the inner convective bands approached the Cape Fear area at 2130 UTC 5 September.

A ship with call sign LAVX4 reported 85 knot winds and a pressure of 984 mb at 1800 UTC 5 September while located about 60 n mi northeast of the hurricane center. Several other ship reports were helpful in defining the extent of tropical storm force winds, as were reports from a network of drifting buoys deployed offshore of the Carolinas in advance of Fran. Table 2 lists ship reports of at least tropical storm force winds in the vicinity of Fran.

Several wind gusts to hurricane force were measured from coastal areas in North Carolina. As usual for landfalling hurricanes, however, reports of sustained hurricane force winds are difficult to find. Table 3 lists selected U.S. surface observations. The NOAA C-MAN station at Frying Pan Shoals (about 50 n mi south-southeast of Wilmington, North Carolina) reported sustained winds of 79 knots and gusts to 108 knots from a tower about 80 feet above sea level.

Numerous pressure and wind reports from North Carolina were relayed to the NHC through amateur radio volunteers. The lowest measured pressure was 954 mb from Southport. The highest measured wind gust was 119 knots at an elevation of 30 feet (mounted on a house approximately 4 feet above the chimney) from a Davis wind instrument located on Hewletts Creek in Wilmington. A gust to 109 knots was measured in Wrightsville Beach. Although these measurements are very much desired to supplement the more official observations, they will not be listed in Table 3 until their accuracy is verified.

Several tornadoes were indicated by Doppler radar in North Carolina and Virginia. Confirmation, however, has been difficult due to the extensive nature of straight line wind damage across the region.

At the time of this report, a post-storm high water mark survey was being conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Geological Survey. Many high water marks remain to be surveyed and "tied into" bench marks. The locations of the maximum values cannot be finalized until the survey is complete. However, initial survey results show an extensive storm surge along the North Carolina coast primarily southwest of Cape Lookout. Still water mark elevations on the inside of buildings, indicative of the storm surge, range from 8 to 12 feet. Outside water marks on buildings or debris lines are higher due to the effect of breaking waves.

Rainfall totals exceeding six inches were common near the path of Fran. WSR-88D radar precipitation estimates were as high as 12 inches over portions of Brunswick and Pender counties in North Carolina. Extensive flooding spread well inland from the Carolinas into Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Some of this flooding was considered the most severe in years. Near Washington, D.C., for example, the Old Town district of historic Alexandria was partially evacuated as the Potomac River rose, flooding streets with more than three feet of water. The next update of this report will include an analysis of rainfall along the path of Fran to be provided by the NWS Eastern Region Headquarters.

c. Casualty and Damage Statistics

According to Associated Press reports, Hurricane Fran was responsible for 34 deaths. Most of the deaths were caused by flash flooding in the Carolinas, Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Twenty-one died in North Carolina alone. However, the total death count will likely be revised downward in the next update of this report based on data from NWS personnel to be published in Storm Data, since the NWS attempts to list deaths directly attributable to the weather. For example, most vehicle accidents and heart attacks from over-exertion after a hurricane are not considered direct deaths.

Storm surge on the North Carolina coast destroyed or seriously damaged numerous beachfront houses. Widespread wind damage to trees and roofs, as well as downed power lines, occurred as Fran moved inland over North Carolina and Virginia. Extensive flooding was responsible for additional damage in the Carolinas, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Nearly a half-million tourists and residents were ordered to evacuate the coast in North and South Carolina. Press reports from Reuters News Service stated that 4.5 million people in the Carolinas and Virginia were left without power.

The Property Claim Services Division of the American Insurance Services Group reports that Fran caused an estimated $1.6 billion dollars in insured property damage to the United States. This estimate includes $1.275 billion in North Carolina, $20 million in South Carolina, $175 million in Virginia, $50 million in Maryland, $20 million in West Virginia, $40 million in Pennsylvania and $20 million in Ohio. A conservative ratio between total damage and insured property damage, compared to past landfalling hurricanes, is two to one. Therefore, the total U.S. damage estimate is $3.2 billion.

d. Forecast and Warning Critique

During Fran's life as a tropical storm or hurricane, the average official track forecast errors ranged from 66 n mi at 24 hours (37 cases) to 137 n mi at 48 hours (33 cases) to 185 n mi at 72 hours (29 cases). These errors are at least 25 percent less than the previous ten-year averages of the official track errors.

The BAMD (deep-layer Beta and Advection Model) and the GFDI (interpolated version of the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory model) provided the best guidance in terms of the lowest track forecast errors. However, the GFDI model showed a distinct bias to the left of the actual track (Figure 4) (77K GIF). The guidance from this model, which is generally acknowledged to be the most accurate one operationally available to the NHC, resulted in some left bias in the official forecasts near landfall.

Most NHC intensity forecast errors were 15 knots or less. All but one intensity forecast made after 2100 UTC 02 September correctly indicated a landfalling category three hurricane.

Table 4 lists the various watches and warnings that were issued. Hurricane warnings were posted for the hardest hit portions of the North Carolina coast about 27 hours prior to landfall.


Some of the information in this report was provided by NWS offices in the Eastern Region and is greatly appreciated. Stephen Baig prepared Fig. 1, and Mike Hopkins assisted with Table 3.

Table 1. Best track, Hurricane Fran, 23 August - 8 September, 1996
Position Pressure
Wind Speed
Lat. (°N)Lon. (°W)
23/120014.021.0101225 tropical depression
120014.644.9100535tropical storm
180020.260.699060tropical storm
120036.779.098540tropical storm
180038.079.499530 tropical depression
09/000044.975.9100225 extratropical
0600     absorbed by a front
05/000028.676.1946105 minimum pressure
06/003033.978.0954100 landfall near Cape Fear, NC

Table 2. Ship reports of 34 knots or higher wind speed, associated with Hurricane Fran, August-September 1996.
ship namelatitude (°N)longitude (°W) wind dir/
speed (knots)
30/1200AMAGISAN23.1 55.9110/351015.0
03/0600SEALAND CRUSADER26.867.3150/35 1011.0
05/1200KAAPGRACHT32.279.6010/66 1006.5
SUNBELT DIXIE33.277.3040/581004.5
CR MARSEILLE33.677.1XXX/601006.5
CRISTOFORO COLOMBO34.774.2140/401013.0
05/1800LAVX433.076.9100/85 984.0
CR MARSEILLE34.575.6090/501007.0
05/2100CRISTOFORO COLOMBO33.073.6130/40 1010.0
ZIM AMERICA34.774.0120/451010.0
OOCL FIDELITY35.874.0110/341012.0
06/0000COPACABANA31.572.9160/36 1013.0
CRISTOFORO COLOMBO32.574.2140/381010.0
ZIM AMERICA34.374.1140/451009.0
OOCL FIDELITY35.474.2120/381010.0
06/0300OOCL FIDELITY35.074.7110/401007.0
06/0600LAVX433.376.2200/43 1006.0
CR MARSEILLE33.973.5180/401013.2
06/0900ZIM AMERICA33.675.4200/451009.0

Table 3. Hurricane Fran selected surface observations, September, 1996.
(kt) a
(UTC) b
(ft) c
(ft) d
Storm total
South Carolina
Charleston (CHS)998.005/2234273605/2330   1.10
Charleston City Office  294105/1850 1.1 0.87
Cheraw992.2  5606/0315   1.32
Cherry Grove Pier   6705/2215   8.36
Conway   48    5.02
Dillon        4.62
Florence  30 M56 M 06/0250  2.21
Garden City Pier   6405/2215   5.91
Loris   47    5.14
Marion        3.01
Mullins        3.98
Myrtle Beach Pavilion   66 05/2215   
Myrtle Beach Pier   65 05/22153.6 7.02
North Carolina
Apex (South RDU)        6.06
Atlantic Beach    87     
Butner        6.21
Cape Lookout987.0        
Cherry Point MCA (NKT) M993.906/025543 6606/0255   
Duck Pier     1.5   
Duke Marine Lab (Beaufort)   80  5.4  
Elizabeth City CG (ECG)1005.106/11473748 06/1255   
Fayetteville (FAY)971.606/04305569 06/0430   
Figure Eight Island       10-12 e 
Fort Bragg (FBG)972.306/02463864 06/0431  4.70
Graham        6.65
Greensboro (GSO)984.406/0900304206/0537   3.91
Greenville   87     
Holden Beach   6005/2300    
New River982.005/0230 82    7.05
Newport        3.24
North Topsail Beach  65 05/0045  8-9 e 
Oregon Inlet     2.3   
Pope AFB (POB)977.606/04554358 06/0418  6.72
Raleigh-Durham (RDU)977.606/06533969 06/045  8.80
Rocky Mount (RWI) *980.706/0200173906/0445   3.68
Rougemount (Durham Co)        6.02
Seymour Johnson (GSB)981.006/05555570 06/0555  6.38
Southport State Pilot Office   91     
Wilmington (ILM)961.406/00365875 05/2349   
Wilmington Tide Gauge      5.5  
Wrightsville Beach       10-11 e 
NOAA Ship Whiting f959.905/2135       
Charlottesville (CHO) M998.606/16452238 06/1045    
Danville (DAN) M987.506/11513446 06/0449   
Hot Springs (HSP) M1002.406/14002948 06/1540   
Lynchburg (LYH) M990.606/14541838 06/1243   
Norfolk NAS (NGU)1004.606/08553655 06/08052.6    
Richmond (RIC)1000.806/1141324606/1141    
Roanoke (ROA) M994.706/12543344 06/0954   
Staunton (SHD) M997.606/18402543 06/1120   
Washington D.C. g      5.6/7.3  
CMAN Stations
Frying Pan Shoals (FPSN7)960.605/230079108 05/2100   
Diamond Shoals (DSLN7)1006.606/05005865 06/0400   
Cape Lookout (CLKN7)996.906/01005671 06/0300   
Folly Island (FBIS1)997.605/22002441 05/1900   

a NWS standard averaging period is 1 min; ASOS and C-MAN are 2 min; buoys are 8 min.

b Date/time is for sustained wind when both sustained and gust are listed.

c Storm surge is water height above normal astronomical tide level.

d Storm tide is water height above NGVD.

e Estimated.

f Docked at Wilmington State Pier.

* Station not reporting from 02-10Z 06 Sept.

M Taken directly from METAR reports.

g The 5.6 ft value occurred on 06 Sept at 17 UTC, and was the actual storm surge, the 7.3 ft value occurred as a much broader peak on 09 Sept at 0418 UTC, from freshwater runoff.

Table 4. Watch and warning summary, Hurricane Fran, 23 August - 8 September, 1996.
29/0300hurricane watch Northeastern Leeward Islands from Antigua through St. Maartin
29/2100hurricane watch discontinued Northeastern Leeward Islands from Antigua through St. Maartin
hurricane watchCentral Bahamas
tropical storm warningCentral Bahamas
03/0900hurricane watch Northwestern Bahamas
03/1800hurricane warning Northwestern Bahamas
04/0300hurricane watch north of Sebastien Inlet, FL to Little River Inlet, SC
04/0900watches and warnings discontinued Central Bahamas
04/1500hurricane watch extended northward Little River Inlet, SC to Oregon Inlet, NC including Pamlico Sound
04/1800hurricane warning downgraded to tropical storm warning Northwestern Bahama Islands of Andros and New Providence
04/2100hurricane warning north of Brunswick, GA to Cape Lookout, NC
hurricane watch north of Cape Lookout, NC to Currituck Beach Light, NC including Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds
tropical storm warning Flagler Beach, FL to Brunswick, GA
hurricane watch discontinued south of Cape Lookout, NC
05/0300 hurricane warning extended northward north of Cape Lookout, NC to NC/VA border including the Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds
hurricane watch north of NC/VA border to Chincoteague, VA including the Greater Hampton Roads area
hurricane warning downgraded to tropical storm warning northwestern Bahama Islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama
hurricane warning discontinued northwestern Bahama Islands
tropical storm warning discontinued Andros and New Providence Islands
05/0900 tropical storm warning discontinued Flagler Beach, FL to Brunswick, GA
tropical storm warning discontinued northwestern Bahama Islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama
05/1500tropical storm warning north of the NC/VA border to Chincoteague, VA including the Greater Hampton Roads area
tropical storm warninglower Chesapeake Bay
hurricane warning downgraded to tropical storm warning north of Brunswick, GA to just south of Edisto Beach, SC
06/0100 hurricane and tropical storm warnings discontinued Cape Romain, SC southward
06/0300 hurricane warnings discontinued south of Cape Fear, NC
hurricane watch discontinued north of the NC/SC border to Chincoteague, VA including the Greater Hampton Raods area
06/0900hurricane warning discontinued remainder of NC coast
06/1800tropical storm warning discontinued remainder of U.S. east coast

Brian Maher
Jack Beven

Last updated December 28, 1998