Like many people in southern Britain, we have spent the last 4 or 5 days waiting ominously for a great storm to arrive. We were promised that it would be comparable to the “Hurricane” of 1987, an event I very much remember as a child and not just because of an inability to get to school due to fallen trees but to the many people killed, 15 million trees destroyed and a famous weather forecast where the national weather forecaster insisted that we weren’t to worry about a hurricane just hours before it actually hit us.
Of course we in Great Britain, don’t get hurricanes, these storms are limited to the Caribbean areas and the north Pacific. However we do get hurricane force winds that for those underneath them are pretty much just as devastating.
Parts of the U.K. get such winds several times a winter, Cornwall that sticks out into the Atlantic and many of the Scottish Islands get winds that make yesterdays storm a piece of cake. In the defence of Southern England, there are countless more people, buildings and trees to cause damage and most houses are made of brick at best and not 2 feet thick stone walls. Our house only has brick diving walls, the rest are made of wood and hardboard or as my wife fondly says, cardboard. So we spent a rather long weekend anticipating what might happen to our home, especially as the 1987 hurricane ripped off the roofs of some the buildings here and we are surrounded by trees.
We spent Sunday going for a bracing walk along the nearby canal. We munched on sweets as we tore slices of bread into small pieces to feed to the ducks and other birds there. Before and after feeding from us, the birds were sheltered from the growing wind by a grassy bank. It was time for us to head back home too and find our own shelter.
I’d done everything possible to prepare for the storm, and put away all garden furniture in the shed. We’d just got a new roof and window fitted for the shed as we knew the old ones probably would get blown off.
By bedtime on Sunday night, we could hear the gales growing but it was nothing compared to the oncoming storm in Cornwall where the beaches were already being pounded.
The wind woke me several times through the night and from 4am, I decided was unable to wake so lay in the dark listening to the buffeting. Our clocks had gone back this weekend back onto winter time and so it was light an hour earlier than it had been. Amazingly, despite the winds, there had been no damage to anything in sight. Then I put the radio on and heard that the storm was still 150 miles away and would be with us in an hour or so.
They were totally correct and by 6.40am there were branches blowing down the street, trees blown so that their branches were almost touching the ground and random bangs as roof tiles and bits of heavy debris hit various surfaces.
The trees in our back garden were taking a real battering and then about 7.10am, the willow tree snapped about 8 feet above the ground, sending the other 20 feet of it into the neighbours garden. Another tree also lost its top and there was damage to a few other bushes. For 30 minutes there was nothing to do but watch and wait and then all of a sudden, the wind and the trees relaxed and a short while later everything was calm again. We’d made it through the Great Storm though as most people realised it wasn’t the worst since 1987 but merely since 2002.
We were sad to lose our trees. We have a small garden and we planted the trees to block out the nearby houses and apartment blocks. Also the Willow in particular is great because it attracts insects which attract birds, bats, frogs and other creatures. In effect it turns our city garden into a green oasis for us and wildlife.
Soon, we could here sirens outside, they continued for most of the day. The next village to us had been cut off due to fallen trees and travel by road and rail was for much of the day either impossible or foolhardy.
A million homes went without power, several hundred thousand are still without them today. Several people lost their lives either washed out to sea or crushed by falling trees in their homes, in their cars or in the street. One of those who died was driving to work just 4 miles from our home, his car hit by a large oak that chose the precisely wrong second in the last 300 years to fall over. A particularly unusual event occurred in a street in London when a large tree fell over and ruptured gas pipes which then exploded, destroying 3 houses at 7.30am, killing the occupants. For the most part it was a case of inconvenience and a day of watching the news on TV.
The tidying up operation started immediately and I spent much of this morning cutting, sawing and chopping up wood in my own and neighbours garden. Willow wood isn’t easy to saw due to its flexibility and moisture. The same properties that make it good for bows and arrows and cricket bats meant the tree bended in the wind to totally impossible angles rather so it snapped rather than the whole tree blowing over from the roots.
The highest winds recorded yesterday were “just” 99mph but as the trees are all still in leaf, it still caused more than enough damage.
Luckily there was very little damaged caused by our fallen trees and it is a miracle not more people were hurt when you see so many streets with mature trees like this blown over on a morning rush-hour.
51 year old Donal Drohan, father of 3 was driving from nearby Harrow when his car was totally flattened by the falling tree below. Despite the best efforts of drivers, passers-by and emergency services, sadly he died at the scene. I used to drive that way to work at the same time 6.50am for many years so I am grateful it wasn’t me. The normally very busy street was closed for much of the day.
All photos taken from BBC, Independent Newspaper, The Guardian, Daily Mail or myself unless otherwise identified.