The Great Storm of 1987: How deadly weather killed 18, flattened 15million trees and left a £1.5billion repair bill after weatherman Michael Fish told nation no hurricane was coming
- Fish brushed off the storm on national TV hours before it arrived
- Winds peaked at 120mph and millions were left without power
The impending arrival of Storm Ciaran has seen panic buyers strip shelves in supermarkets and schools close before the bad weather hits.
Hurricane-force gales are set to hit the Channel Islands and further bad weather will hit much of the south of England in disruption that has been likened to the Great Storm of 1987.
Thirty-six years ago, the deadly weather killed 18 people, flattened 15million trees and left a £1.5billion repair bill.
BBC weatherman Michael Fish became a household name for the wrong reasons when he told viewers worried that a hurricane was on the way: ‘…don’t worry if you’re watching, there isn’t’.
In the hours that followed on the night of October 15-16, winds peaked at more than 120mph and millions of homes were left without power.
The Great Storm of 1987 killed 18 people, flattened 15million trees and left a £1.5billion repair bill. Above: A man leaves a telephone kiosk that has been knocked over by an uprooted tree in south-west London after the storm
READ MORE: Brace for Storm Ciaran ‘weather bomb’: Panic buyers strip supermarket shelves and schools forced to shut in Jersey as it braces for 100mph hurricane-force gales to rival the ‘Great Storm of 1987’ – with rest of UK bracing for extreme weather
It was the worst storm in nearly 300 years.
At some treasured visitor hotpots, including Emmetts Garden in Kent and Chartwell, the home of Sir Winston Churchill, thousands of trees were lost. At the former, only five per cent of woodland survived.
Elsewhere, entire forests – such as Sandlings Forest in East Anglia – lost nearly all their trees.
Highlighting the unprecedented nature of the storm, the Met Office said that even the oldest at the time in the worst affected areas ‘couldn’t recall winds so strong, or destruction on so great a scale’.
Signs that danger was developing in the Bay of Biscay off the coast of Spain emerged at midday on October 15.
When it started to move towards Britain, the job of explaining what might happen fell to Mr Fish on BBC One.
He told viewers shortly after 1pm: ‘Earlier on today, apparently, a woman rang the BBC and said she heard there was a hurricane on the way; well, if you’re watching, don’t worry, there isn’t.
A car crushed by a falling tree in London during the 1987 storm
A Channel ferry was driven ashore in what turned out to be the worst storm for nearly 300 years
When the storm started to move towards Britain, the job of explaining what might happen fell to Mr Fish on BBC One. He told viewers shortly after 1pm: ‘Earlier on today, apparently, a woman rang the BBC and said she heard there was a hurricane on the way; well, if you’re watching, don’t worry, there isn’t’
The 1987 storm damaged the homes of thousands of Britons. Above: A homeowner observes the damage to his property
As for the millions of fallen trees, they forced the National Trust to embark on the biggest outdoor repair job in its history as it planted 500,000 replacement plants across the country. At Emmetts Garden (pictured) in Kent, only five per cent of the woodland escaped the battering
The hill behind Winston Churchill’s family home of Chartwell lost most of its trees – but has since been restored
‘But having said that, actually, the weather will become very windy, but most of the strong winds, incidentally, will be down over Spain and across into France.’
As people went to bed that night, there was no warning of what was about to happen.
Shortly before midnight, weatherman Bill Giles said in the BBC’s final weather forecast for the day: ‘It looks like most of the strong winds will stay away, although it’s still going to be very breezy up through the Channel and on the eastern side of the country.’
In the hours that followed, the storm swept across Britain, causing severe damage everywhere it went.
It was the Channel Islands that first felt the storm’s full force, with trees falling and blocking roads.
The worst of the damage occurred in south-east England, with gusts of 70 knots or more recorded continually for three or four hours straight.
Thousands of homes were left without power for more than 24 hours, and trees fell onto roads and railway lines, causing severe disruption.
The Met Office also recalled how a number of small boats were wrecked or blown away, with one ship at Dover being blown over and a Channel ferry being blown ashore near Folkestone.
In the aftermath of the storm, questions were raised over how the forecasters got it so wrong.
The Daily Mail’s front page reflected the nation’s anger as it asked: ‘Why weren’t we warned?’
However, Mr Fish was unrepentant immediately afterwards, as he referred to the woman who initially phoned in to express fears that a hurricane was on the way.
He said: ‘The lady was form Wales, which didn’t get the winds, and it was a deep depression, not a hurricane, so I was right’.
The Met Office’s marketing director said afterwards: ‘I don’t think you can call it a mistake – we did forecast stormy weather, we just didn’t get the detail right’.
The AA said that, had they had accurate forecasts, they would have warned motorists to get off the roads.
Instead, thousands of cars were crushed by trees, some with people inside.
The Daily Mail’s original report said: ‘The storm had struck with awesome indifference to human frailty or strength, affluence or poverty.
‘Old age pensioners in seaside nursing homes were bundled out of their ripped-apart wards, weeping in the wind.
‘Drivers of high-priced cars found them crushed and broken, side by side with old bangers equally destroyed.
A light aircraft is seen lying upside down at Stapleford Abbotts airfield near Epping in Essex after the Great Storm in 1987
A Volkswagen Beetle is trapped under a fallen in the aftermath of the storm. Thousands of homes were left without power for more than 24 hours, and transport disruption was caused due to trees falling onto roads and railway lines
This shaken Briton is seen looking at what may have been his car, which had been crushed by a falling tree in the 1987 storm
A red Routemaster bus is seen driving past a broken tree in London in the aftermath of the October 1987 storm
This home was one of the many which was severely damaged by falling trees in the 1987 storm. The failure to accurately forecast the storm led to an internal inquiry in the Met Office, with refinements made to computer models and the training of weathermen
‘Death struck impartially, it claimed one victim here in a soft hotel bed, another there, sleeping rough on a vagrant’s pavement.
‘It took young and old. People died in their homes, in their cars or doing their jobs in the battle, against the storm’s ravages.’
Kent was one of the worst hit areas, with winds of up to 120mph lashing the county.
In Chatham, a woman was crushed to death in her bed by a falling beech tree, while another victim in the village of Biddenden was killed when two chimney stacks collapsed on his roof and crushed him.
At Howletts Zoo in Canterbury, two leopards escaped when a tree fell on their compound, while looters in Brighton stole electrical goods from the city’s main shopping area after outlets had their windows shattered.
The storm also forced thousands of shops, factories and offices to close, costing the British economy millions of pounds in lost profits.
As for the millions of fallen trees, they forced the National Trust to embark on the biggest outdoor repair job in its history as it planted 500,000 replacement plants across the country.
At Emmetts Garden in Kent, only five per cent of the woodland escaped the battering.
‘It was like a battle zone,’ gardener Alan Comb recalled in 2014. ‘There were isolated trees sticking up like totem poles.’
At Knole, near Sevenoaks, Kent, sweet chestnuts and other trees fell like dominoes or were stripped of their leaves and branches.
The hill behind Winston Churchill’s family home of Chartwell lost most of its trees – but has since been restored.
And the disruption stretched as far as the City of London’s financial system, with cheques failing to clear – meaning that some Britons were left with their money in limbo.
The failure to accurately forecast the storm led to an internal inquiry in the Met Office, with refinements made to computer models and the training of weathermen.
The storm caused so much damage partly because of the sting jet which formed during it. At the time, forecasters were not aware that the jets existed.
They get their name from their resemblance to the sting in a scorpion’s tail, with the Met Office describing how they can be spotted as they develop on satellite images, where the end of the so-called cold conveyor is marked by a hook-shaped cloud with a point at the end.
The forecaster defines a sting jet as a small area of very intense winds, which can be as strong as 100mph or more, that can form in powerful weather systems crossing the UK.
While the strongest winds usually take place for a short period of time, perhaps around four hours, and across an area as small as 30 miles, the Met Office said the phenomenon can cause ‘significant damage and risk to life’.
Explaining how these jets form, the forecaster said weather fronts separate areas of warm and cold air and their interaction creates and develops wet and windy weather.
There are more focused streams of warm and cold air close to the weather fronts, known as conveyor belts – with the warm conveyor rising and the cold conveyor falling.
In the aftermath of the storm, questions were raised over how the forecasters got it so wrong. The Daily Mail’s front page reflected the nation’s anger as it asked: ‘Why weren’t we warned?’
The Daily Mail’s original report said: ‘The storm had struck with awesome indifference to human frailty or strength, affluence or poverty. ‘Old age pensioners in seaside nursing homes were bundled out of their ripped-apart wards, weeping in the wind
The Met Office said these ‘wrap around the area of low pressure and help develop it by feeding warm air and moisture into the system’.
It added: ‘The cold conveyor brings its cold air from higher in the atmosphere and from being in a cold air mass. Sometimes it has help from rain and snow as they fall into it and evaporate.
‘This change from liquid to gas requires heat, which is removed from the conveyor, cooling it further. Now we have even colder air falling along the conveyor, speeding up as it does so, like a rollercoaster taking the first drop.
‘As this wind reaches the surface it can often produce much stronger gusts than would otherwise be made by the storm.
‘However, the cold conveyor catches up with itself after a few hours and consumes the sting jet, keeping the length of time and area of potential damage quite small.’
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