St Jude's Day Storm: Four dead after 99mph winds and night of destruction – but at least we saw it coming

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Four died and thousands are still without power, but the Met Office says the forecasts show how much weather predictions have improved compared with 26 years ago

Tens of thousands of homes were still without power yesterday evening after hurricane-force winds claimed four lives as they tore through southern Britain.

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As authorities continue to clear debris and fallen trees and engineers work to restore power, rail commuters are being warned to check with operators for up-to-date information, with National Rail saying it was not yet able to say how services will be affected today.

The St Jude’s Day Storm – one of the worst in decades – wreaked havoc with transport and power networks, with winds peaking at 99mph on the Isle of Wight.  The victims included Bethany Freeman, a 17-year-old girl who was crushed as a tree fell on the static home where she was sleeping in Hever, near Edenbridge, Kent.

A “loving husband” and father-of-three, Donal Drohan, 51, originally from Waterford, Ireland, also died after his car was hit by a tree at the River Colne bridge in Watford.

Two others, a man in his forties and a woman were also killed, when they were trapped under rubble after an uprooted tree caused a gas blast in Hounslow, west London.

During the morning, winds approaching 100mph swept through the South-west, South, South-east, the Midlands and the East of England after first hitting land in the early hours.

The storm, dubbed St Jude after the patron of lost causes, also caused transport disruption on road, rail, air and sea, and power cuts for hundreds of thousands of homes. Flash flooding affected closed several roads. On Monday night, the Environment Agency said four flood warnings and 99 flood alerts were still in place.

The storm, which is now over Scandinavia, will today be replaced with far lighter winds and rain, but dozens of areas in southern England still remain on flood alert, The Environment Agency said.

Despite the flooding problems, The Independent can reveal that hundreds of staff working on Britain’s flood defences are in danger of losing their jobs as the Environment Agency makes about 1,700 staff redundant.

The job losses, which equate to about 15 per cent of the agency’s workforce, will be lost following a review of the organisation that will look at every aspect of its operation.

They put at risk the 3,500 agency staff that are directly responsible for Britain’s flood risk management, which sees them operating, maintaining and replacing an estimated £20bn worth of “ flood risk management” installations – such as the Thames Barrier – as well as providing flood forecasting and warning systems, maintaining maps of areas liable to floods and preparing emergency plans and responding when storms occur.

The job cuts also threaten “operational workers”, many of whom perform a variety of tasks for the Environment Agency, including flood-related ones such as clearing rivers of debris ahead of a big storm.

A spokesman for the Environment Agency pointed out that the Government had earmarked extra money to be spent on infrastructure to protect against storms, but could not rule out redundancies in the flood-related part of the organisation.

Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Grantham Institute, said the cuts could have “widespread consequences for homes and businesses across the country”.

Hitting the mainland in the early hours, yesterday’s storm left 17-year-old Bethany crushed as a 30ft tree fell on the caravan she and her family were living in while renovation work was taking place at their home at Edenbridge in Kent.

Known as “Gia”, she was a was a “universally respected” sixth-form pupil at Tunbridge Wells Grammar School who “had everything to look forward to”, the school said.

There were tragic scenes as her driving instructor arrived at her home in Lydens Lane to pick her up without knowing she had died.

Mr Drohan, from Harrow, west London, was described as being “in the wrong place at the wrong time” when his car was struck by a falling tree at Lower High Street. An officer who attended the scene said that a millisecond’s difference would have made for “a different story”.

The Harrow council worker’s family said: “He was the best husband and father anyone could wish for. You couldn’t find anyone who had a bad word to say about him.”

In Hounslow, three houses were completely destroyed and two more damaged by the blast, thought to have been caused by a ruptured gas main.

Officers were called to Bath Road at around 7.30am and at noon they found the male victim’s body at number 47 amid “scenes of devastation”.

An hour and a half later, a woman, yet to be identified,  was found dead at the same property.

Later in the day, the Met Office lifted its amber warning as the heart of the storm blew away from Norfolk and over the North Sea to the Continent.

The Energy Networks Association said 459,000 homes which suffered power cuts across England have had energy restored, but yesterday evening 166,000 were still disconnected.

The port of Dover in Kent had to be shut, train and Tube services were disrupted, more than 130 flights at Heathrow Airport were cancelled and many roads were impassable.

Debris falling on to power lines caused a nuclear power station in Kent to automatically close down both its reactors, leaving its own diesel generators to provide power for essential safety systems.

A Met Office spokeswoman Laura Young warned that blustery conditions were expected to remain in London and the East Midlands.

She said: “Although the amber warning is over, there are still strong winds and the impacts from earlier in the day are still around. People need to stay aware, keep an eye on the forecast and remain alert to the situation.”

Experts said that, while the gales were relatively weak compared with the Great Storm of 1987, the forecasts had shown how much weather predictions have improved compared with 26 years ago.

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