Hurricane Fran: Looking Back after 25 Years

Each year as we get deeper into Atlantic hurricane season and especially in the month of September, there is always an uneasiness in the back of the minds of Duke Forest staff. Whenever a named storm heads towards North Carolina, there is always the question: “Could this one be another Fran?” September 5th and 6th, 2021 will mark 25 years since Hurricane Fran pummeled North Carolina and Durham. With the eye of the storm crossing the Durham Division, it was the strongest hurricane and most significant natural disturbance in the history of the Duke Forest, downing thousands of trees, flooding our creeks and streams, washing out roads, and ultimately causing the closure of the Forest for up to six months in some areas. Read the story of Hurricane Fran and how Duke Forest staff responded below in this cover story from our 2016 LOG newsletter.

September 2016 marked the twenty-year anniversary of Hurricane Fran, the most damaging hurricane to hit the Duke Forest since its establishment in 1931. On Friday September 6, 1996, Fran crashed through the Forest, flooding stream banks, splitting tree trunks, and ripping up tree roots. Its scars are visible today in the decaying trees and tip-up mounds of upturned roots that dot the landscape. Twenty years later, the Office of the Duke Forest is remembering this historic hurricane and considering its long term effects on the Forest.

By the time the storm hit his house – 20 miles from Durham – Judd Edeburn was already anxious to assess the damage on the Duke Forest.  Judd was the Forest’s Resource Manager until 2014, and he considers this event one of the most overwhelming of his long career.  After chain-sawing his way to Durham, Judd reached the Duke Forest and met up with his crew of employees and students. When recalling the morning after Fran, Judd remembers the shock of seeing the damage for the first time:

It was surprising how significant the damage was… When I got to Durham, there were trees down everywhere. I got to the end of Lemur Lane, and I couldn’t even get to the [Duke Forest Maintenance] Shop because trees were down… The first thing to do was cut through the trees to get to the Lemur Center.

After opening up the roads to the Shop and the Lemur Center, Duke Forest staff regrouped and decided to return to the Forest the next day to fully assess the storm damage. That Saturday, Forest staff surveyed the roads and began to fully understand the breadth of Fran’s damage. They counted more than 1,400 trees down across 35 miles of roads.

Fallen trees had also damaged several structures including the Bobby Ross, Jr. Memorial Picnic Shelter, signage along the Shepherd Nature Trail, and a research tower in the Blackwood Division. Intense rainfall led to flooding that overtopped the Wooden Bridge inside the Korstian Division – a bridge that normally sits 15 feet above New Hope Creek.  High waters eroded “rip rap”, the stabilizing gravel and rocks that reinforce the banks around bridges.

Most damage was concentrated along northeast-facing slopes in the Duke Forest’s Durham and Korstian Divisions, which faced the eye of the storm. After consulting with the Duke Forest Advisory Committee and Duke University administrators, Judd and his team decided to officially close the Duke Forest. Portions of the Forest remained closed for three to six months following the storm.

In the months that followed, Judd and the Forest crew focused all of their efforts on storm recovery. With only 5 permanent staff members on the team (just like today), they needed reinforcements to support their efforts.  The Office hired several contractor crews to remove fallen trees, regrade roads, and remove branches and leaves from road ditches. With the help of the North Carolina Forest Service, Duke Forest also conducted an aerial survey of the Forest and created hand-drawn maps of Fran damage.

One of the most notable recovery efforts after Fran was the use of a helicopter logging crew to salvage fallen trees and recoup some of the economic losses from the storm. The helicopter salvaged high-value timber in inaccessible areas of the Duke Forest, minimizing soil and habitat damage. Within just two weeks, the helicopter crew salvaged over 800,000 board feet of timber (~67,000 cubic feet) from 163 acres of forest. Timber salvage operations continued through the summer of 1998.  In total, the Duke Forest salvaged a total of 2 million board feet (~167,000 cubic feet) from 540 acres, recovering approximately $260,000 in timber value.

In addition to these recovery efforts, Duke Forest staff also developed a management plan to allow for Hurricane Fran’s legacy to live on in the Forest. Downed trees were not removed from places like Natural Heritage Areas, long term study plots, and areas with scattered trees. This was intentionally done to allow for natural regeneration, as well as to create areas where researchers could study Fran’s effects.

Since that time, researchers like Drs. Weimin Xi, Robert Peet, and Dean Urban have used the Duke Forest to study how large hurricanes, like Hurricane Fran, affect Piedmont forests. Much of this research shows that Fran has had lasting effects on the structure and composition of the Duke Forest. Primarily, Fran created greater variation within and between stands of Forest trees.

Microbursts of wind caused trees to fall in patches, creating a mosaic of habitat types which now vary from sunny fields to thick woodlands. The average age of many stands also decreased as old trees fell and new seedlings sprouted in their place. In addition, Fran caused a modest increase in the diversity of tree species in the Forest. An influx of young hardwood trees regenerated where old pines, oaks, and hickories had fallen.  Fast-growing trees like Tuliptree and Sweetgum sprouted under the newly opened canopy. Herbaceous plants, shrubs, and exotic species, like Japanese Stiltgrass, Princess Tree, and Tree-of-Heaven, also took hold.

Though Duke Forest has recovered from the devastation, Hurricane Fran’s effects will remain visible for decades. The tip-up mounds and decaying tree trunks linger, and long-time members of the Duke Forest staff still vividly recall the months after Fran. As Judd puts it, “Fran was a shock to deal with. It was new and different, and almost overwhelming in its magnitude. But we did the right set of things. Now we know what to do in the future.”

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