[This story was published on October 12 in the Observer series. Read the original story at http://www.chichester.co.uk/news/an-area-of-outstanding-natural-devastation-1-8192279.]
Three decades ago, West Sussex woke up to incredible devastation.
The Great Storm of 1987 wrecked such havoc on the county that immediately after the hurricane, Mrs Mary Lochner, chairman of the county Coast and Countryside committee, described Sussex as “an area of outstanding natural devastation”.
More than £20 million was reported by the Observer to be the staggering total cost of the trail of damage left in West Sussex by the worst storm in living memory.Thousands of homes and business premises were damaged as winds of up to 108 miles per hour – the strongest ever recorded – lashed the county for hours on end during the night of October 15 to 16. There was also considerable damage to windmills, harbours and country parks across the county. A massive repair operation was launched on the spire of Chichester’s 900 year old cathedral, which had been completely exposed to the winds. Masonry had crashed down through the roof, landing on the apron of the cathedral’s Arundel Screen. West side windows were also damaged, as were two of the four tower pinnacles, one of which had snapped off. Chichester Cathedral was not the only historic building to become a storm casualty – the city Cross had also suffered serious damage, and was cordoned off while firemen worked to remove the ball and vane, which was hanging at a dangerous angle.
Selsey was hit particularly hard by the storm – hundreds of caravans were overturned by the gales and more than 100 people were evacuated to the safety of the local parish hall, where they were given hot drinks and sandwiches, using candles to light the hall when the electricity failed. Station officer Tony Dann said that at West Sands holiday park, where firemen had been called after electric cables were reported down, the men were faced with “total devastation”. There was a wall of sea spray and unidentified flying objects, and the firemen were unable to stand up in the winds. One fireman was blown off his feet 30 feet along the ground, losing his helmet. The ambulance service received more than 100 calls, but, due to road bloackage, were unable to get through to Selsey, meaning that local doctors stepped in to treat the injured. Selsey parish councillors were told that their parish clerk, Mr Mike Blaylock, was on duty for 21 hours during the night of the storm.
The landscape of heavily wooded West Sussex dramatically changed as a result of the Great Storm, necessitating work on the 2,500 miles of footpaths in the county. Large numbers of trees, ranging from unique centuries old specimens in arboretums and the grounds of great country houses to huge new timber plantations, were brought crashing to the ground during the storm. Trees at Kingley Vale nature reserve, the historic gardens at West Dean House, and Goodwood House were seriously damaged. Fine tree specimens were lost completely, including some in Priory Park and in the Summersdale area, and several roads were blocked.
A man trapped in his car by a falling tree in Pound Farm Lane had to be freed by Chichester firemen. The fire brigade was particularly busy during the night with hundreds of calls, many of them to houses in a dangerous condition.
More than £100,000 pounds worth of damage was caused when an 18th century barn on the Chichester high schools’ campus at Kingsham collapsed on the eight vehicles inside. The horticultural industry was badly hit by the storm. Mr John Frampton, a director of Chichester’s Framptons Nurseries Ltd, said that there was damage to large areas of glass and the structure of the buildings. In addition to extensive damage to the greenhouses, there was also great concern for the crops inside. Lettuce crops were a write-off due to glass among the leaves.
Despite the devastation, the people of Sussex were quick to respond: builders embarked on a massive repair operation throughout the country, repairing damaged roofs and chimneys. Hundreds of West Sussex County Council staff worked flat out to repair the damage left by the hurricane.
The Observer reported that Selsey Parish Council chairman Mr Peter Ogden ‘paid tribute to the wonderful community spirit which prevailed in Selsey village at the time. Selsey had something to be proud of in its villagers he said’.
Local amateur radio operators were able to assure a radio user in far off South Africa that her parents were unharmed in the hurricane. Jim Kimpton, a member of Chichester and District Amateur Radio Club, was taking part in Chichester District Scouts’ Jamboree of the Air, contacting Scouts abroad, when an anxious voice crackled through the receiver. Jim said: “It was an operator called Jenny, on the air on behalf of the White River Scouts in the Transvaal, South Africa. She had been unable to contact her parents in Chandlers Ford since the hurricane hit Britain, and she was worried that they had come to harm. Within an hour we managed to find out that Jenny’s parents were fine but their phone was out of order, and she was very relieved to hear it.”
The emergency services worked phenomenally hard to help West Sussex residents, often putting their own safety on the line. Three firemen answered a call for help from two young mothers with two small children and a baby. The wind was so strong that firemen could not walk into the house, and they had to crawl. Unable to evacuate the families, the firemen stayed with the two mothers and their children until dawn.
A record 2,773 calls, compared with a normal daily total of 700, were received by police through Sussex. Staff at the Chichester fire brigade headquarters were so inundated that they did not have time to count the number of calls their team received.
Hospital staffs were also praised for their work during the storm. Although several Chichester hospital buildings were damaged, amazingly, only two patients were affected by the hurricane.
The storm and its aftermath changed the landscape of Sussex forever, and 30 years on, many people still have vivid memories of their experiences that night. What are yours?