Massive disruption forecast as weather experts predict worst storm for decades

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People across the country were preparing themselves last night for the worst weather in decades, with experts warning that icy gales could approach the ferocity of the infamous 1987 storm.

After the sunniest February on record, a meteorological event on a par with the most violent of the last century was predicted for today with heavy rain, lightning, gale force winds, flooding and hailstones forecast.

Power supplies are likely to be disrupted, trees uprooted and buildings damaged when the storm takes hold.

There were fears the storms could bring Britain's transport infrastructure to a standstill as airports and ferry companies prepared themselves for cancellations. Drivers were advised to take extra precautions and avoid dangerous conditions while the Environment Agency and Coastguard pleaded with people to stay clear of the coast.

Homeowners in coastal and low-lying areas were warned to prepare for the worst while residents across the UK were urged to check for loose slates and pack away any potted plants or garden furniture that could be picked up by the winds.

Bookmaker William Hill was even offering odds of 250/1 that Antony Gormley's iconic 65-foot statue Angel of the North would be blown over.

The storm was forecast to develop out of a strong jet stream that moved out of Canada on Saturday, crossing the Atlantic before hitting the UK overnight.

Gales of up to 80mph, rain and hailstones were set to begin battering the country when an intense low pressure system reached its shores at midnight with snow predicted for high ground. Even higher winds were forecast for Ireland with flood warnings in place for Dublin.

Minute by minute the Environment Agency was increasing the number of flood warnings in England and Wales with seven severe flood warnings, 44 flood warnings and 48 flood watches in force by midnight, with the Devon and Cornwall coastline in particular said to be in jeopardy.

David Rooke, head of flood risk management at the Environment Agency, said: "People living in properties in low-lying exposed coastal areas along the south west, Wales and north-west England should make sure they monitor the situation.

"The strong winds will combine with high spring tides to significantly elevate the water levels along the coast, which is likely to cause some flooding. We understand people are fascinated by the sea but at times like this we do urge them not to go and watch the waves.

"It is extremely dangerous and only takes a few seconds for someone to be knocked off their feet into the water."

The Coastguard "strongly advised" all mariners and coastal visitors to be very wary with "extremely difficult weather conditions" expected along with winds of up to violent storm force 11.

The unsettled weather is due to peak this morning – during the rush hour – and ease off before worsening again in the evening, with fierce westerly gusts in the west and south of the country. A second wave of bad weather was predicted for later in the week as well. Travellers were advised to check with airlines and ferry companies before setting off today.

A Gatwick airport spokesman said yesterday it was prepared for possible cancellations or delays, adding: "We are in regular contact with the Met Office and our airfield operations are ready to take guidance from them. Operations are running as usual at the moment, and we have to deal with each issue on its own merit.

"But if the weather is as bad as currently predicted, there may be delays or cancellations."

Meanwhile, P&O Ferries cancelled its crossings from Portsmouth to Bilbao, Spain, yesterday as well as the return trip on Tuesday. The company's crossings between Dover and Calais were being delayed by up to an hour. And the RAC advised drivers to be prepared for hazardous driving conditions.

"If you're planning a journey... please take extra care, especially on open stretches of exposed roads and when crossing bridges and [with] high-sided vehicles.

"Allow extra time for your journey and be careful if towing a caravan or trailer," the company said.