`There will be no hurricane'

Friday 12 September 1997 23:02
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The 1987 Great Storm was the worst to hit the south-east and east of England for more than 250 years. It principally affected 16 counties, plus Greater London. Eighteen people died, as winds of up to 110mph were recorded, causing severe flooding in places, a shutdown of the National Grid in the south-east and power cuts which lasted for weeks in some places. The forecasters had failed to predict the gale and the BBC's Michael Fish, in particular, became infamous for actually telling listeners that there would not be a hurricane.

Some 15 million trees were lost and many others were damaged. Whole plantations of pines snapped 10 or 12 feet off the ground. Six out of the seven trees which gave Sevenoaks its name were lost. Some 2,000 trees fell on the Blickling estate in Norfolk. Most of the counties where the winds were strongest also had the highest levels of woodland (such as Surrey with 18.8 per cent and West Sussex with 17.4 per cent). However, some of the oldest trees did survive - many of those which were four or five hundred years old simply creaked a little in the wind, often because their hollow interior makes them inherently stronger than a solid tree.

Many famous estates and gardens suffered heavy damage. Country Life reported that at Scotney Castle it took a gang of six men working all daylight hours three days to clear a path to the house. And there was a great deal of damage to houses and hotels. At St Osyth's Priory in Essex, 16 chimneys came down and four stacks fell through the roof. In Essex, a chicken house containing 17,000 birds was so badly crushed that all the animals had to be destroyed. The total bill nationwide for damage was estimated at pounds 800m. And there was more to come when the gale of 1990 hit many areas that had already lost their shelter in 1987 and so were far more vulnerable than before.

The crisis provoked by these two events did, however, produce a sense of optimism, as many people became enthused with the prospect of fresh planting. The Countryside Commission has sponsored the Task Force Trees project; grants totalling pounds 13m have led to 2 million trees being planted. Many other trees were saved by tree surgery and there has been much natural regeneration in the spaces left by the dead woodland.

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