Monday, 28 October 2013

St Jude's - and other storms

So how are we all today? Wet, windblown, trees fallen down in the garden? Here in mid Essex, I think we got off reasonably lightly, although even now at 2pm, the sky's black, the rain's beating down and there's still a fair old wind blowing. I saw branches blown off trees as I walked round our neighbourhood this morning, but nothing worse, thank goodness. I'm sure there are other parts of the country that suffered a far worse fate. There's already one terribly tragic story about a teenage boy feared drowned off the south coast and we're surely all feeling for his poor family.

But luckily in my own area, the worst result of the storm is probably the inconvenience to people who normally commute to work, or who were planning to travel today. There were no trains running at all until at least midday, flights cancelled from Heathrow, and the QE2 Bridge at the Dartford crossing on the Thames has been closed, which would have caused horrendous queues on both the Essex and Kent sides of the river as the Dartford Tunnel was used in contraflow.

At times like this it's always hard to know whether there's any overreaction from transport bosses, but to be fair, if they didn't err on the side of caution, putting passenger/motorist safety as their first priority, imagine how they'd be pilloried if they carried on as normal and there were serious accidents. Likewise, if we sometimes think the weather forecasters get it wrong, or act with any degree of caution or exaggeration, there are always complaints - but they can't really win, can they? If they told us not to worry, that it wouldn't be too bad, and we ended up with a hurricane the likes of the 1987 one, we'd all quite rightly be asking why they'd got it so wrong again.

Cue poor Michael Fish, who has never lived down his comment back in 1987 that there really wasn't a hurricane coming.  The country was caught out, that time, and I can understand forecasters not wanting to be in that situation again.  The trouble is that we just don't expect hurricanes in England, do we! 

During the night of 15/16 October 1987, I woke several times thinking it was very windy outside, but was completely unprepared for the devastation we saw in the morning. In fact, my children will remember that even in the morning I hadn't yet appreciated how serious it was. I insisted they got ready for school, thinking my neighbour who'd told her kids they wouldn't be going was being too lenient by letting them have the day off. It was only as we started to walk to school that I saw how bad the damage to trees and property was, and we soon learnt from others coming back our way that both the children's schools were closed. That storm, as we now know, killed 18 people in the UK, destroyed an estimated 15 million trees, and was designated as the worst to hit our country since 1703.  In fact it was after this that the Government allocated funding for the Met Office to set up the National Severe Weather Warning system.

The 1987 hurricane is well remembered, but people don't seem to talk so much about the so-called 'Burns Day' storm of 25 January 1990, although in fact a tragically higher number of people were killed on this occasion - 47 - because the height of the storm was during the day instead of at night. There was one story of a whole class of children in Sussex being evacuated minutes before their building collapsed. There were gusts of wind with speeds just as high as in the 1987 hurricane, although apparently (and according to my understanding), to be classed as a hurricane proper, a storm has to record wind speeds that are sustained over a certain period rather than in gusts. Other than this, probably the main difference between the 1987 and 1990 events was the fact that on 25 January 1990 the forecasters got it right.

On that day of the Burns Day storm I arrived home to find our brick garden wall completely collapsed into the garden. It was quite shocking to witness first hand the damage a storm could do in the normally temperate climate of southern England. From my point of view only one good thing came out of it. I wrote a short story set on the day of the storm, and it was eventually published in one of the women's magazines.  Like most writers, I can usually turn the unfortunate things in my life to good use in fiction. So perhaps St Jude won't be a lost cause this year after all. But I do hope you are all safe and well after last night's bad weather.


  1. We've had some damage on the Essex coast, Sheila. It's interesting about how they measure whether a storm is a hurricane or not.

    We lost a brick wall in the 1987 storm - it is shocking when something as solid as a brick wall goes. But I got a short story out of it too x

  2. Ha! That proves my point about us writers, Teresa! Nothing is so bad that we can't get inspiration from it! Actually since writing this blog post I learnt that not far from me in Chelmsford city centre the roof blew off a hotel (apparently) so things were obviously worse here than I first thought!