The night the Selsey twister wrecked a town

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The Independent Online
The small West Sussex town of Selsey woke up yesterday morning to the multi-million-pound damage of a freak 100mph tornado. Ian Burrell reports on how the shellshocked townsfolk then became targets for looters and cowboy builders.

It came just before midnight. To some, the whistling winds that suddenly drowned out the noise of a thunderous hailstorm were like the sound of an onrushing express train. Others heard it and envisaged a giant tidal wave sweeping up through the town from the shore.

Then came an explosive thunder clap. Across Selsey windows were sucked from their frames, cars lifted into the air and chimney stacks hurled to the ground.

Jeremy Wearn, a photocopier engineer, was asleep as the glass burst out of his window, causing a rushing change of pressure which ripped out an outside wall, sending breeze blocks crashing to the ground.

Without the outside wall, Mr Wearn's three-sided bedroom, with its exposed wardrobes and candelabra, yesterday looked like a display in a furniture showroom open to the gaze of neighbours and the media.

Shortly before he was moved to emergency hotel accommodation, he said: "When the crashing had stopped I looked out and could see next door. The bedroom wall had gone."

The town's most famous resident, Patrick Moore, the astronomer, rushed home 500 yards from his local Indian restaurant to assess the storm damage to his three observatories. One was demolished.

"It looks like Dresden after a raid," he told The Independent. "It's going to be a major repair job." No one was killed and only two were injured in what the London Weather Centre later described as a "fairly major tornado". But yesterday, as local people tried to patch up 1,000 damaged homes, a new surge swept through the town in the form of opportunists who tried to cash in on their plight. First, shortly before 7am, came the looters. A gang of youths descended on a petrol station which had lost its window and roof to the tornado and attempted to raid the garage shop.

Locals, most of whom stayed awake all night in a state of shock, spotted what was happening and called the police.

Other would-be looters made for a badly damaged caravan site and tried to force their way into some of the mobile homes. Chief Inspector Stuart Harrison, of Sussex Police, said: "It's adding insult to injury to members of the public who have already suffered greatly at the hands of Mother Nature. It seems rather evil that they should be preying on people when they are in their direst need." He said a team of 35 uniformed officers had been deployed on the streets of Selsey to prevent more incidents.

Then came the cowboys. Roofers, glaziers and builders began arriving in the village soon after daybreak. Although many local firms were present, others had come from London and as far away as Norfolk.

Albert Jones, owner of local firm Nutbourne Construction, said: "There's a lot awful lot of chancers down here. One bloke had filled his car with tarpaulin and was trying to sell it."

Some locals were being asked for up to pounds 60 per roof tile for repairs. By lunch time, the police had drawn up a leaflet with a caricature of a cowboy which was circulated to all the damaged homes. It warned: "Watch out, there's a cowboy about. If in doubt call your local police station." Chief Inspector Harrison said: "We have uniformed officers out investigating the bona fides of some of these people." Selsey is used to fighting the elements.

A milder tornado struck there in 1986 and earlier this week there were flooding alerts as waves breached the sea defences.

Arthur Gilling, a retired bank worker who was shoring up his bungalow yesterday after branches from a pine tree came crashing through the roof and bedroom window, said: "It was like nothing on earth." Eric Payne, who had to be evacuated from his home, concurred: "It felt as if Armageddon had come," he said.