Discuss the Impacts of Storm Events on the British Isles and evaluate the Responses to them (40 marks). In October 1987, the worst storm ever to hit the British Isles struck. It was caused by warm air from Africa meeting cold air from the Atlantic Ocean, forming an intense depression over the Bay of Biscay on the 15th of October. The depression moved northwards and then changed direction, heading directly for Britain. The depression was so intense that winds over the Hampshire coast exceeded 100km/h and in Sussex and Kent, winds were recorded at gale force 11. The impacts of this storm were disastrous. Not only was the storm incredibly powerful, but incorrect information broadcast by the BBC from the Met Office told the public that the storm would just miss the country and that, other than heavy rain, the weather would be okay. This meant that many people went to bed without preparing for a night of very strong winds. With proper warning, it is possible that people would have made the conscious decision not to park cars near old trees, or spend the night in solid shelter.
However, I feel that it is unlikely that many people would have taken these precautions, as is so often the case with any storm or natural disaster, so I do not feel that there would have been a drastic reduction in the number of casualties or the scale of property damage. Social impacts were the most significant, as, overnight, 19 people were killed in England alone. In perspective, that is 5 times greater than the death toll of St. Jude in 2013, another major recent storm. Furthermore, 5 million homes were rendered powerless as electricity cables were broken by falling trees. Falling trees also presented a hazard to property, and cars and houses alike were crushed, leaving people without any method of transport to get to work and with rain pouring into their homes. In terms of environmental impacts, a total of 15 million trees were blown down. Several ancient and rare trees at Kew Gardens were uprooted, as well as six of the famous oak trees at Sevenoaks.
There were secondary repercussions of this damage. For example, many trees damaged pipes and blocked drains, leading to flooding and the release of harmful waste into the environment, which damaged ecosystems and was particularly damaging to small mammal populations. Some new habitats were created, however, by the falling trees, allowing for biological diversification in some areas. Flooding was also economically harmful, ruining 6km2 of farmland, and wrecking dozens of caravan parks, particularly due to their close proximity to the coast. Many roads and railways were blocked so businesses struggled to continue operating for several days and many business premises were actually destroyed. In total, £2billion of insurance claims (compared to £130million after St. Jude) were made and this led to an enormous increase in premiums the following year, especially in areas deemed to be at greatest risk of flooding. There were also political consequences to the storm, as many people blamed the government for the lack of appropriate warning and for a seemingly sluggish response.
However, the slow response was largely unavoidable, as emergency services were inundated with calls (over 24 hours, the fire service received 6000 calls) and with damaged infrastructure, attending to each case was logistically challenging. Since the last general election had occurred just months before, the political impacts were minimal. Responses to storms can be organised into four main categories: warning/preparation, evacuation, aid, and rebuilding. Obviously, in this case there was no need for evacuation, as the storm affected most of the country and it came and went very quickly. This would have been an overreaction and would have wasted a lot of time and public money without being particularly effective. Additionally, as a well-developed country, the notion of international aid is relatively inapplicable. However, a small amount of government funds were set aside to help those less-wealthy get back on their feet after the storm.
As previously mentioned, the warning and preparation aspects of responding to the storm were ineffective, as the BBC falsely reassured the public that the storm would not take place at all. However, warnings had been issued of severe weather to services like the London fire brigade. This meant that these services were at least anticipating high demand, if not to the extent that ensued. By 1:35am on the 16th of October, the Met Office had warned the Ministry of Defence that the civil authorities may be in need of military assistance in order to react to the anticipated consequences of the storm. After the storm was over, a great deal of money and time was invested in a monumental operation to get the country back to how it was before. Due to the phenomenal number of trees uprooted, many environmental campaigners dedicated the following months to the clean-up of forests and wooded areas. Furthermore, prominent figures such as the writer Oliver Rackham, and charities such as Common Ground were outspoken in trying to prevent the unnecessary destruction of trees, as they were still living, despite being fallen.
This angered many people who felt that money would be much better spent improving the lives of those who had lost loved ones or had suffered financially due to the storm. Whilst I personally feel that, had the Met Office provided the public with correct information as to whether the storm would occur, the overall impact of the storm would have remained similar in terms of scale, the public held them largely accountable. As a result of this, the government ordered assessment of the organisation by two independent bodies. Following this, various improvements were made. For example: observational coverage of the atmosphere over the ocean to the south and west of the UK was improved by increasing the quality and quantity of observations from ships, aircraft, buoys and satellites, and refinements were made to the computer models used in forecasting.
This was a very expensive procedure but facilitated not only better storm prediction, but also general weather prediction, being of long-term convenience to the public on a day-to-day basis. As major storms are uncommon in the UK, I feel that it is unfair to criticise the response to what has since been referred to as ‘the Great Storm’. Suggestions have been made that new buildings should be built to specific storm-safe standards, but I feel that this should be left up to the owners’ discretion, as there is a relatively low chance of this being of any benefit and the financial cost could be very high. The issue of mistakes made by the Met Office was very adequately dealt with, and I feel that the only real improvement that could be made to reduce damage in the future would be to improve education on what to do in the event of a major storm.