A Date to Remember: The Great Storm of 1987

It was the most devastating storm to hit the UK in 300 years, claiming 18 lives, destroying 15 million trees and leading many people to wonder whether they could ever trust a weather forecast again

Early in the morning of 16 October 1987, a man from Barton-on-Sea in Hampshire managed to find a phone in working order to call his wife. Hurricane-force winds had made it impossible for him to get home the night before, and he wanted to make sure she was all right.

‘How is it there, dear? Are you OK?’ he asked. The phone crackled, then she replied, ‘Yes, dear, I’m fine. But the shed has just gone past the kitchen window.’

It was a typically British understated response to the devastation caused during the night by winds that swept across southern and eastern England and northern France, reaching speeds of 110mph (the highest gusts, at 122mph, were recorded in Norfolk).  

Three people were killed when their chimneys toppled, others died in the stormy sea or on roads, and many more were injured by falling debris. (It was said the toll of death and injury would have been even higher if the storm had hit in the daytime.) Thousands of homes were wrecked, all roads in Hampshire were closed, a plane flipped upside down, a cross-channel ferry (pictured) ran aground, caravan sites, churches and a seaside pier were destroyed, as well as historic trees and woodland. Parts of the familiar British landscape were changed forever, with the town of Sevenoaks famously becoming one oak. The capital itself was blacked out for six hours, and London Fire Brigade answered over 6,000 calls. 

Yet most people – like the woman in Hampshire – reacted with typical British stoicism, bravery and good humour, struggling to carry on and help each other. Some even managed to get to work, despite roads and rail being blocked by trees and debris. 

The Met Office was criticised for failing to predict such extreme weather. Michael Fish had given the forecast a matter of hours before and smilingly dismissed talk of severe weather storms. He said, ‘Apparently, a woman rang the BBC and said she’d heard there was a hurricane on the way. Well, if you are watching, don’t worry – there isn’t.’

Michael fish dismissed talk of a hurricane - and has never been allowed to forget it

Michael Fish took a battering, so to speak, though technically he was right: the Great Storm was not a hurricane. The winds that ensued were hurricane force, but a hurricane needs a tropical environment and tropical moisture to feed on, which the UK doesn’t have. 

The Met Office responded to criticism by launching an internal inquiry, which concluded, ‘We now know that the strength of the storm was boosted by a phenomenon known as the “sting jet”, where cold dry air descends into storms high in the atmosphere.’ As a result, the National Severe Weather Warning Service was created to inform the public about life-threatening weather. 

Decades later, the gaffe lives on. When economists failed to predict the financial collapse of 2008-9, it was described by financiers as their ‘Michael Fish moment’. When it was included in a video montage at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games, Fish dryly commented, ‘If I got a penny every time it was broadcast, I’d be a multi-millionaire.’

While the storm was confirmed as a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon, experts admit it could still happen again… though surely this time the public would receive plenty of warning? ‘I’d like to think it would never happen again without prediction,’ Michael Fish said when asked this question. ‘But you can never say never. The weather is very fickle.’

Did you know?

The storm was the most expensive weather-related event in the history of the British insurance industry. The total repair bill cost more than £2 billion.

Image credits: BBC pictures, Mirror Pix