Storm Hell? I don't think so

Would a Mozambican have watched the telly and asked when was it that the British became such a nation of girls' blouses?

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The chances are that you won't be reading this. This afternoon, as I watch the TV news while simultaneously keeping an ear out for the radio bulletins, it's clear that things are bad out there. Or rather, "grim".

The chances are that you won't be reading this. This afternoon, as I watch the TV news while simultaneously keeping an ear out for the radio bulletins, it's clear that things are bad out there. Or rather, "grim".

Talking of grim, surely the Second Coming is at hand? A fuel crisis has been followed by a Great Flood and now a Great Storm. In this newspaper yesterday it was revealed that the wild flowers are disappearing - going the same way as the sparrows - while a new killer breed of 5ft nettles lurks in every hedgerow waiting for our children and pekinese (should the storm ever abate) to wander innocently amongst them. And then - Sting. Bye-bye. Yun-ming. Perhaps those who think the new millennium starts on 1 January 2001 and others who believed that this moment would mark the end of the world will turn out to have been right after all.

During the night the rain beat ominously against our windows and - at about 3am - something banged downstairs. My partner went to see what had happened, but it was too dark outside. At 7 am, while it was still not yet quite light, Alan Little, veteran of Bosnia, South Africa and Rwanda, was fronting the Today programme, calling in excited reports from all over a storm-ravaged nation.

One of the BBC's Emmas was found in a place called Robertsbridge, in Sussex. The wind howled into the mouthpiece of her mobile phone. "Here in Robertsbridge," she began, pluckily, "conditions are absolutely..." There was a sudden beep, and Emma lost contact with the studio. Had a sudden, silent surge of water run the wrong way up the River Uck (or wherever) and - coming from behind - swept poor Emma and her mobile phone into the sewage-coloured torrent? Or perhaps a caravan, lifted from its shallow roots on the coast by a freak tornado, had been sent hurtling the 20 miles inland, like a monstrous leaf, to alight with a crash upon the unlucky reporter? The woman doing Thought for the Day captured the millennarian moment by talking of natural disasters "from Bognor Regis to Bangladesh".

Things got worse. Or rather "conditions" did. In fact they got "absolutely atrocious". There was, according to where you were and where you wanted to get to, a choice of chaos, devastation or havoc. Roads were treacherous and impassable. The picture was grim. It was a nightmare. Before 9am we were being advised by sombre sounding spokespersons for the emergency services and Railtrack to "stay at home and not venture outdoors". You know things are really bad when even getting the milk off the step involves "venturing".

But venture I did. Our house is at the top of a hill, so the flood threat was remote, even if the wind danger was acute. The evidence was everywhere. Branches, some as thick as your index finger, littered the pavements, themselves made treacherous by leaves and rain. Puddles up to an inch deep had appeared on roadways. On the high street, a row of window boxes suspended above the doors of a famous public house had come down in the night and sat in earthy disarray on the ground, still the right way up. Had any passing drunk stopped in that doorway at about 3am, he might easily have suffered the first death by falling lobelia of the millennium. A static file of buses, vans and cars stretched up and down the hill as far as the eye could see, proof of the chaos on London's roads.

I bought a copy of the Evening Standard, somehow miraculously delivered to our newsagent. "Storm Hell" read the headline. There was a picture of 4four-wheel-drive cars in Knightsbridge, the water up to the lower rims of their wheels. I dodged the falling twigs all the way back home and tuned into ITN's lunchtime bulletin. Far from getting better, it turned out that "the South is virtually cut off from the rest of the country". Virtually cut off! Like East and West Germany, families on either side of the dividing line of fallen trunks, blocked railways and flooded plains were now unable to visit one another. Virtually.

"We haven't seen scenes like in Taunton for 40 years," said one reporter from a bridge crowded with suicidal sightseers, whose curiosity clearly outweighed their caution. Didn't they know not to venture? Somewhere else the waters were "coming perilously close to overwhelming the River Café". I suppose I might have been more alarmed had it been the Mountaintop Inn that was threatened, but it was still scary. Down in Selsey, scene of a small tornado that had ripped through the town killing no-one, the excitable Nick Owen braced himself against the wind in a luminous anorak. And told us in awed tones that the beach we saw before us was all that stood between him and the sea. Ten minutes later overlooking the same shingle, a BBC reporter in a luminous anorak surveyed the scene. "If there was a place," he said, "to be in the frontline against the weather, this is it."

I was still pondering this remarkable military metaphor when - appropriately - we were transported to Dover. "Port authorities," the voice said, "say they've never known anything like it. It's as bad as the Great Storm of 1987." Uh? But the next expert revealed that perhaps this wasn't quite as bad as the Great Storm. It was a lesser thing, but spread more widely. He didn't quite say the winds had been slower, the damage had been less and the death toll had been smaller. But I knew that they had been.

So, during the afternoon I began to experience real disappointment. BBC2 has recently been full of excellent programmes warning of global natural disasters that are inevitable. A mega-tsunami, or tidal wave, unleashed when half of Gran Canaria falls into the Atlantic Ocean (as it's going to) will unleash a wave 650 metres high on the east coast of the United States, swamping everything from Walt Disney World to the spire on the Empire State. Meanwhile, heading towards us through the uncharted depths of space, is an asteroid with our name on it. It may come tomorrow, it may arrive in the year 4007, but when it does impact, then it's perpetual winter. Which is a long way from a great fart in a south-coast caravan park.

Of course, though we spend less time thinking about them, real disasters go on all the time on our planet. I wonder what happened to the Mozambique floods? They were big for a day or two, with fusses about helicopters and women giving birth in trees, but I haven't heard anything for a while. How is Central America recovering from the side-effects of El Nino? You can make and market a Hollywood movie with a star such as Bruce Willis intercepting an asteroid, but not one in which he saves Bangladesh from poisoning.

I wonder too what a Mozambican would have made of our Storm Hell? Would he or she have watched the telly for the last couple of days and asked themselves when was it that we British became such a nation of big girls' blouses? A couple of fallen trees, a small inundation or two, a flurry of snow and it's "don't venture outside for fear of your life".

We have become so cut off from nature that we build our houses in flood plains and complain when we're flooded, and we commute longer and longer distances to work and moan when these absurdly over-extended lines of communication are interrupted by winds.

By the way, Emma survived and we never did find out what went bang in the night. Probably nothing did.

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com">David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

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