After the Storm…

Twenty-five years ago I was living in Brighton as a graduate student at the University of Sussex. On October 16th 1987 (a Friday) I woke up to find the electricity had been cut off. Without breakfast I struggled out to find the street lined with fallen trees, smashed cars and houses with broken windows. This was the Great Storm of 1987 which, according to weather forecaster Michael Fish, was “not a hurricane” and I had slept through the whole thing…

Here’s the infamous weather forecast broadcast on the Thursday evening

and here is the BBC News from the following day:

I’m sure my readers (Sid and Doris Bonkers) will be anxious to share their recollections of that wild and windy night through the comments box!

16 Responses to “After the Storm…”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    I was living in Sydney at the time but, in view of the strong links between the nations, this item dominated the Australian media for a short while, and it was amazing to see the damage when I returned a few months later.

    I gather that the falling of six of the original seven oaks of Sevenoaks in Kent was misreported in some non-English media as the destruction of 6/7ths of the town.

    • telescoper Says:

      I remember the first time I made it up to the University of Sussex campus (a few miles out of town) after the storm; the trains were not running for a while because of fallen trees and lack of power.

      The surrounding hills looked like somebody had flattened the trees with a giant comb. On closer inspection I noticed how shallow their roots had been; there is only a thin layer of soil on top of the chalk on the Sussex downs. It had also rained quite heavily before the storm, which helped make them easy to topple.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        How did the prior rain make them more vulnerable?

      • telescoper Says:

        Rain on the leaves makes the branches a lot heavier, so the tree is more top-heavy. Also wet soil makes it easier to topple a tree.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Once surface water has fallen off leaves, which isn’t an issue in a 80mph wind, I’m unsure what percentage weight increase of branches is caused by the bark getting soggy, and in any case I suspect that this is a small moment effect at the roots compared to that of the wind pressure. I don’t understand how wet soil makes toppling easier unless it is virtually mud down to several feet depth, and not remotely enough rain fell for that; one might equally well argue that wet soil clumps better. Am I missing something?

      • telescoper Says:

        It’s certainly easier to topple over smaller trees when the soil is wet…

      • I think the bigger issue was that it was early autumn, so the leaves were on the trees still. That gave them a much greater surface area so they were like open umbrellas in the wind

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        That makes better sense to me Laurence. Although by mid-October I’d have expected the wind to strip the leaves before it brought the tree down. Anybody got a decent reference?

  2. Monica Grady Says:

    And soon you’ll be going back to see whether much has changed….

  3. …of course up in the (real) north – the trees only grow to 3ft high and so there’s no chance they will blow over. i always wondered if it was simply the lack of regular winter gales which led to the “destruction” when one finally happened.

  4. I was in my first year at QMC, trees down, a mess everywhere etc, although I slept through it 🙂

  5. … and, of course, Jacqueline du Pre died a couple of days later…

  6. Bryn Jones Says:

    I was in Cardiff that night, which was windy but not exceptionally so. I was astonished the following morning that radio and television broadcasts reported severe damage across southern England. Television pictures showed terrible devastation, particularly to woodlands because trees were still in leaf in mid-October and therefore had larger cross-sections to the wind than they do during winter storms.

    Ironically, the next storm to hit Britain, a few days later, caused much greater damage in Wales, with some buildings losing roofs and some trees being uprooted. That storm caused floods. If my memory serves me correctly, that was the flooding that undermined the foundations of a bridge in West Wales causing the bridge to collapse when a train crossed, resulting in fatalities.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      The bridge had collapsed before the train reached it, because its supporting piers were undermined by the exceptional flood flow of the river it traversed; see

      A man who farmed the adjacent field saw the bridge down early in the morning and was rushing back to phone a report of it when he heard the train approach; he saw it fall into the river. He said that the water was at its highest of the season actually at the time of the accident. That is all in the accident report, so I infer that the more infamous previous storm probably did not damage the bridge but left the land saturated, so that the next storm caused the exceptional flood which brought down the bridge. The bridge took almost one year to replace.

      One end of this ‘Heart of Wales’ line is at Shrewsbury, 15 miles south of me, and I intend to take a trip on it someday as it looks lovely.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      Yes, that’s the incident. It was tragic, just like the many deaths caused by the better-known storm a few days earlier.

  7. Bryn Jones Says:

    Of course, we do not get hurricanes in Britain, but we do get the remnants of former hurricanes that cross the Atlantic. They tend to bring lots of warm, moist air and can deposit some of the moisture as rain. If I remember correctly, it was the remnants of a former hurricane and former tropical storm that the woman Michael Fish mentioned was enquiring about. The warm air and moisture from that former hurricane contributed to the development of the October 1987 storm, if I understand things correctly.

    Storms can bring hurricane-force winds to Europe, but hurricane-force winds are not necessarily hurricanes, of course.

    Incidentally, the remnants of Hurricane Rafael may reach Britain by the beginning of next week. We may get lots of rain – again.

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