Monday, 15 October 2012

Memories of the Great Storm

On Thursday night, 25 years ago, I had just finished help producing the first performance of A Grouville Pageant at Grouville Church, had a coffee and chat with my co-producer Rosemary Hampton over how it had gone, before heading back to St Brelade. No one thought of anything apart from strong winds.

It was around 11.00, and my small Mini was buffeted so much by the winds that I remember crawling along Victoria Avenue at around 10 miles per hour, hoping I could round Bel Royal and get out of the winds. There was no power steering in those days, and every so often a gust would push at the car so hard that I had trouble keeping the steering wheel firmly on course.

Eventually I got back home, after around a 45 minute journey, and had a troubled sleep because of the rattling of the windows. In the morning, I was woken by the phone. My sister had their wooden porch in front of their bungalow blown away, and she wondered how things were down in the Bay.

That was the first inkling that anything major had happened. I looked into the drive, and saw two elm trees snapped like twigs half way up, broken trunks in the drive. (They were later taken down for road widening; they never got Dutch elm disease). I tried to ring her back, but by now the phone system was out of action; it can collapsed from the weight of calls.

These were the days before the internet, or mobiles, so the one source of up to date information - and very good it was too - was BBC Radio Jersey, which amazingly was on the air, giving out details as the day went on. I think that was the day it really showed what a community based Radio station could do, and that's something they've done very well since, when snow has been causing havoc on roads a few years back, to bus strikes more recently.

Because of the play, I'd taken the day off work.  Of course, in the morning, I soon realised that with trees down everywhere, very few people would make it into work! I wandered down St Brelade's Bay, trees down everywhere, and at the toilets close to Mid-Bay, tree roots were sticking up in the air, water from broken pipes was gushing up into the road. The car park by the Winston Churchill park had a row of trees to the seaward side - you can now park there, because they all came up by the roots, completely, and into the road. Further round, by the church, a whole row of trees on the corner had gone. The whole bay looked as if someone had bombed it.

The skyline too had changed. It was as if suddenly a massive building project had taken place, and the President of Planning had gone off his rocker, because there were lots of houses on the hills above, looking down into the bay, that hadn't been seen before. They'd lost their trees, which of course, they had no permission to cut down. But they were never told to put them back, and the skyline has always been more cluttered above St Brelade's Bay ever since.

The trees were up in our driveway, but fortunately my mini was way back from the road. My next door neighbour, Joe Meade, came round with a chain-saw and by the end of a sweaty morning, they were clear. The roads in and out of the bay were still impassable until the next day.

That Friday, the Grouville Church play was canceled, and an extra performance put on Sunday evening instead. When the Saturday performance commenced, John Le Maistre and Alan Labey put an ad-lib about the storm in their scene about chopping up wood. In this scene, two soldiers from the Militia stack guns and berate the Methodists for not drilling on a Sunday.  I've inserted the ad-lib at the start:

Narrator: Throughout the island, there were quarrels over Church pews, people drunk in Church. The Rector of St Lawrence neglected his church services, and spent much of his time drinking in a tavern.

(enter soldiers, singing badly, pulling trolley on which are guns; carrying bottles of ale. )

Soldier 1: It's a good job we've got these (waving cutting edge of bayonet

Soldier 2: Yes, we needed them to chop our way through here tonight, with all those trees down.

Soldier 1: Stack the guns here, they said. Or was it here.

Soldier 2: There's no battle on at the moment.

Soldier 1: I reckon we should use our guns on those traitors, the Methodists. They're never in the Militia on Sundays.

Soldier 1: Well, that's as maybe. But I have heard tell of good works they do.

Soldier 2: Good? They never drink. Not a drop! A little wine never hurt no one - that's what the good book says.
(swigs from bottle)

Soldier 1: I don't says I agree with them. But they are good people. Their heart's in the right place.

Soldier 2: They're always preaching at you, Just like the Rector. I calls them killjoys! Killjoys! They takes all the fun out of life.

(they disappear to side, soldier 2 still muttering "Killjoys.")

Amazingly, no one was seriously hurt during the Great Storm. The winds were hurricane force at times, but largely I always thought as a face saving measure by the Met Office, "Great storm" rather than "hurricane" became the dominant narrative description. In fact, as the Met Office site itself makes clear, while the winds were not hurricane force everywhere, they were in particular localities:

"In the Beaufort scale of wind force, Hurricane Force (Force 12) is defined as a wind of 64 knots or more, sustained over a period of at least 10 minutes. Gusts, which are comparatively short-lived (but cause a lot of destruction) are not taken into account. By this definition, Hurricane Force winds occurred locally but were not widespread."

"The Great Storm of 1987 was not officially classified as a hurricane by meteorologists as is was gusts, not sustained winds that reached hurricane force....Although not defined technically as a hurricane, gusts up to 122 miles per hour caused havoc and extensive damage."

This allowed the following statement to be made:

"Media reports accused the Met Office of failing to forecast the storm correctly. Repeatedly, they returned to the statement by Michael Fish that there would be no hurricane - which there hadn't been."

That's getting away with a technicality; if you watch the famous forecast, you'll see he doesn't mention hurricane or storm force winds with a threat of widespread damage; rather, his whole demeanour suggests things are going to be very windy, gales, but that's all, no need to panic, folks!

The storm was declared to be a rare event, but in fact, the unsettled weather patterns we have today make that far less likely. Severe weather events have now become the norm. We live in worrying times.

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