Holiday camp gets a taste of Midwest as Twister leaves its mark on coastal town

Selsey tornado
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The Independent Online

Just a few hours after the tornado had struck, the locals were already referring to it almost casually as "the Twister".

Just a few hours after the tornado had struck, the locals were already referring to it almost casually as "the Twister".

It was an unlikely sort of image, more the sort of thing you would associate with some boundless state in the American Midwest rather than a holiday camp on the West Sussex coast.

But once you saw the evidence you realised the locals had a point. West Sands Caravan Park at Selsey, hit by a tornado in January 1998 and just eight miles from Bognor Regis, which was hit by one on Saturday afternoon, was a scene of devastation yesterday morning.

The tornado that struck at 7.10am, sweeping in without warning at 90mph from the English Channel, might have only lasted a couple of minutes but it caused damage amounting to hundreds of thousands of pounds. Of 2,300 caravans on the site, up to 200 were severely damaged. Scores of them were wrecked beyond repair.

Jean Whittle, who lives on the edge of the site, said: "I couldn't see in front of my face; it was so dark when the storms came and the noise was terrifying. It began breaking up some of the caravans and there was the sound of glass breaking as it smashed the windows."

This being the last week of the season, no more than 10 per cent of the caravans and mobile homes that spread along the front were occupied. But there were still more than 100 people in bed when the winds that had been lashing all night suddenly turned worse.

Honor Rowley, who had been sleeping in a caravan on the road running next to the seafront, said: "It just started with very strong winds and then the windows blew in. It came as a rumble and then a bang. The glass hit me in the head and on my hands - it was terrifying."

Ms Rowley and her partner, Ian Meadows, were two of the three people injured by the tornado. They were taken to St Richard's Hospital in Chichester. The windows of their £20,000 caravan had been blown in, but elsewhere the damage was much worse.

A hundred yards away, at the park's Embassy Centre, a bar-cum-ballroom cum-amusement arcade complex on the front, the large window that looked out across 15ft waves to the Isle of Wight had been destroyed.

The word going around was that the glass, specially fitted last year, was designed to withstand earthquake tremors. Yesterday it lay in thousands of shattered pieces that were being swept up by workmen.

It was possible to trace the path the tornado had taken - ripping off the wall of a chalet, sucking a hole in the roof of another property, twisting into the park and turning over a caravan that now stood on its edge, leaning against another. Presumably it then headed inland and fizzled out as quickly as it had arrived.

Within a radius of a hundred yards lay the end-of-holiday-season debris that the tornado had picked and scattered: a television set dumped on the beach, furniture, fittings, a clutch of Dick Francis paperbacks and a set of the board game Cluedo.

A small helter-skelter in a play area had been picked up and smashed.

It was clear that many of the caravans had been wrecked beyond repair rather than damaged. In a number of cases the metal roofs had been ripped back. Scattered everywhere were pieces of yellow insulating material.

David Strachan, of Winchester, a camper who spends all summer at Selsey, was one of those who will now be needing a new caravan. "It's a write-off," he said, standing in front of his caravan, the roof of which was now sagging. "They cannot do anything with it."

Selsey is no stranger to tornadoes. In addition to the twister that ripped through Bognor Regis on Saturday, the tornado that struck Selsey in January 1998 wreaked its damage no more than one-quarter of a mile away from yesterday's scene of devastation.

One of those caught up in that incident was the astronomer Patrick Moore, who hid under a table in his local Indian restaurant as the windows were blown in.

Yesterday, by contrast, he had been in the shower at his home near by when the tornado hit. "I am very upset to hear that people were hurt," he said. "I can't explain it. It's said that lightning never strikes twice but clearly the same is not true of tornadoes."