Night of the hurricane


ON the evening of October 15, 1987, I was working on the Daily Mail off Fleet Street when I went with a colleague for a break-time drink at a nearby pub named the Witness Box. As we left the office at about 9.30pm we walked into a wall of intense heat – reminiscent of the moment when you step off the plane in Greece or Spain in the middle of a blazing July day. It was 80 degrees at least. This was a harbinger of the Great Storm, the worst British weather event since 1703, with 100mph-plus winds leaving a trail of death and destruction across the South.

That lunchtime the TV weatherman Michael Fish had confidently informed viewers: ‘Earlier on today, a woman rang the BBC and said she heard a hurricane was on the way. Well, if you’re watching, don’t worry, there isn’t.’

How wrong can you be?

By 1am, when I started the drive home to Southend-on-Sea, the wind was howling through the London streets. As I headed into Essex, branches were breaking off trees and landing in the road, some of them hitting the car. There was debris everywhere, forcing me to make several detours. It was getting on for 3am when I reached Thorpe Bay to find huge trees blocking the road. I managed to reach the seafront via a circuitous route and came upon a scene of apocalyptic chaos. Boats had been hurled out of the Thames Estuary and across the esplanade into a car park. Beach huts had been reduced to matchwood. By this time I was in fear for my life.

Somehow I threaded my way through the marine junkyard and finally reached home in Shoeburyness. A tree had come down in our front garden missing the bay window by inches. Next door my neighbour was frantically hanging on to his corrugated-iron garage roof to stop it blowing away. I took over while he found some rope and together we managed to anchor the roof, finally heading for bed at about 5am as the wind began to subside.

The devastation wreaked by the storm was astonishing. Two firemen were crushed to death by a tree as they answered an emergency call. Two seamen died in Dover Harbour while several householders perished under collapsed chimneys. In Sevenoaks, Kent, the seven famous Coronation oaks beside the Vine cricket ground were reduced to one. They were among 15million trees ripped out by the roots. The highest recorded gust in the UK was at Shoreham-by-Sea in West Sussex. It reached 120mph before the anemometer broke. Granville, in Normandy, saw a 135mph blast.

Home Secretary Douglas Hurd called it the ‘worst, most widespread night of disaster’ since the Blitz. The official death toll of 19 would have been far higher had the storm not struck in the early hours when most people were in bed.

Hundreds of thousands of homes were left without power. Public transport ground to a halt. Shanklin Pier on the Isle of Wight broke into three pieces. The insurance industry paid out £2billion.

The Met Office launched an inquiry into why it had failed to predict the ‘weather bomb’ and this led to improvements in the quality and scope of forecasting. Battling to save his career and his credibility, Michael Fish claimed he had actually been referring to Hurricane Floyd, which was battering the Florida Keys at the time. Yeah, right.

Though few took him seriously from then on, he remained with the BBC until his retirement in 2004, when he was made an MBE for services to broadcasting. However the term ‘Michael Fish moment’ continues to be applied to any prediction which goes disastrously belly-up.

Footnote: Fish was defended by some who said that ‘hurricane’ refers to the rotating weather systems formed in the Atlantic; that technically he was correct and Britain was hit by ‘hurricane-force winds’.

Old jokes’ home

An elderly lorry driver is tucking into a full English breakfast in a transport caff when three Hells Angels swagger in. One puts his cigarette out in the trucker’s fried egg. Another spits in his mug of tea. The third picks up his plate and empties it on the floor. The victim says nothing, pays his bill and leaves.

‘Huh,’ says one of the Angels to the waitress. ‘He wasn’t much of a man, was he?’

‘Not much of a driver, either,’ she replies. ‘He’s just reversed over three motorbikes.’

A PS from PG

My Aunt Agatha, for instance, is tall and thin and looks rather like a vulture in the Gobi desert, while Aunt Dahlia is short and solid, like a scrum half in the game of Rugby football. In disposition, too, they differ widely. Aunt Agatha is cold and haughty, though presumably unbending a bit when conducting human sacrifices at the time of the full moon, as she is widely rumoured to do, and her attitude towards me has always been that of an austere governess, causing me to feel as if I were six years old and she had just caught me stealing jam from the jam cupboard: whereas Aunt Dahlia is as jovial and bonhomous as a dame in a Christmas pantomime.

PG Wodehouse: Much Obliged, Jeeves

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