Britain battered by 80mph winds

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Homes were flooded and hit by power cuts today as winds of more than 80mph battered Britain.

Forecasters warned of more rough weather to come after gales roared in from the Atlantic from the early hours onwards. Travellers by sea, air, rail and road faced delays and thousands of homes lost power as trees crashed down on lines.

Insurers said the cost of such a storm - the strongest of the winter in southern areas of the country - could run into hundreds of millions of pounds.

The West Country and South Wales bore the brunt, along with other coastal areas.

Rescuers helped a Swedish tanker with 13 crew on board which got into difficulties off the Isle of Wight as the storms whipped up the waters.

Stephen Davenport, a senior forecaster with MeteoGroup, the weather arm of the Press Association, said the winds came in during the early hours "on a line of squally rain".

Exposed areas saw steady winds of 45 to 50mph, severe gale force, bordering on storm force.

Highest gusts were at Berry Head, Brixham, at 3am, 4am and 5am, and the Mumbles in south Wales at 4am, while a gust of 95mph was recorded at The Needles on the Isle of Wight at 1pm.

He said late this afternoon: "It's gone over a little bit, but there are still gales of 70 to 80 miles per hour to come this evening, in the South West, in a second wave. It will be windy elsewhere too, but calming down during the night.

"The next event comes on Tuesday night, and early Wednesday, when there will be more high winds, this time across Northern Ireland, Southern Scotland, Northern England and North Wales, with gusts of more than 70mph expected.

"There will also be gales then in the South and South West."

The North East of England and parts of Scotland faced another menace early today - snow. It turned to heavy rain later but this morning snowfalls, coupled with driving winds, brought treacherous conditions for drivers.

In many areas, fallen trees caused blockages on roads and railway lines.

Speed restrictions were imposed on trains because of the high winds and heavy rain.

British Airways had to cancel a number of short-haul flights at Heathrow and Gatwick Airports after air traffic control chiefs imposed flow controls on take-offs and landings. Some inbound flights to Gatwick had to divert to other airports.

Winds of more than 50mph caused all ground operations at Bristol Airport to be suspended between 4am and 6am.

The Port of Dover was closed to all shipping movements as gales buffeted the coast.

It later reopened but then closed again as strong winds continued to batter the area.

Some 4,500 people in the West Country and South Wales were without power this morning after trees crashed on to power lines.

A spokesman for Western Power Distribution (WPD) said engineers were working to reconnect homes as soon as possible, and the figure had fallen from 5,500 in the early hours of the morning.

Some houses were flooded in Fishguard and Cardigan in Wales, while in Cornwall, more than 30 properties were hit by wind-driven high tides in Looe, Fowey, Mevagissey and Flushing.

Nick Starling, director of general insurance and health at the Association of British Insurers, said: "Insurers are ready to deal with claims from the high winds and floods. They have 24-hour emergency helplines, and can bring in extra claims staff if needed. Some will be contacting policyholders in areas hardest hit to get claims moving quickly. Anyone who has suffered damage should contact their insurer.

"While it is too early to say what the final bill will be, events like this can cost hundreds of millions of pounds; damage caused by Hurricane Kyrill, which hit the UK in January 2007, cost £350 million."

The tanker which ran into trouble off the Isle of Wight was the 11,000-tonne Swedish vessel, Astral.

It was heading for the Esso oil refinery in Fawley with a cargo of gas oil when it ran into trouble.

The rudder was damaged after hitting a large shallow bank near Bembridge at around 7am.

Two Coastguard tugs and an RNLI lifeboat, with six crew aboard, were dispatched in force 11 winds to help.

The vessel, with its 13 crew still aboard, was anchored while a line was attached and the boat was being towed to Fawley.

The Environment Agency said that at 3pm today it had 41 flood warnings and 68 flood watches in place.

Cheltenham Racecourse will open its gates to tens of thousands of racing fans tomorrow after the winds almost saw this year's Gold Cup festival fall at the first hurdle.

Race fever was temporarily put on hold last night when a hospitality tent was flattened and the starter's rostrum blown over, damaging fencing.

Groundsmen worked against the clock to get the course back on track for tomorrow's opening day - when some 55,000 punters are expected to descend on Prestbury Park.

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