Remembering the Great Storm - 30 Years On

by Rich Howorth Trees Climate Change Spotlight on

With the onset of another autumn Atlantic storm (ex-hurricane Ophelia) on Monday 16th October, for many this brings back memories of the great 1987 Storm on the occasion of its 30th anniversary. Alister Peters, an ‘arboriculturist’ (tree specialist) at the city council, gives his own dramatic account of the epic event, looking back thirty years…

“The 1987 storm was completely crazy, an event that will be imprinted on my mind forever. In fact it’s impossible to convey its enormity to anyone who has not lived through it and worked to recover from it.

I was awoken at 2 am on the night of 15-16th October 1987 by the council’s Arbs Officer, Rob Greenland, who said “It's a big blow – come down to the Level and see what we can do”. As soon as I got outside I knew that this was a storm like no other. The trees had already started to fall, or even be blown apart: trees were literally exploding with large stems just shattering! Other trees would roll like a “spurtle” (a stirring stick) in a porridge pot, whilst others would lift and heave, ripping up massive root plates and sections of road or pavement with them.

For many years staff at the council’s tree section had worked tirelessly to save these trees from Dutch Elm Disease, and now all were being blown away in front of us! At the time however I just felt stupidly excited and ‘flying’ from the adrenaline rush.

As it began to draw lighter and the wind began to drop just a little, I escorted a news photographer down the Valley Gardens to the Old Steine. It was like walking through a scene from WW1, with trees littering the streets and others still collapsing and giving up the struggle to stand upright. Cars were crushed and trees were resting upon buildings.

Storm aftermath, looking south along The Level (Rob Greenland)

Storm aftermath, looking south along The Level (Rob Greenland)

With the break of day came the troops: workers from Brighton Council’s Tree Gang who had to cut their way to work using their own chainsaws! The phones were all down and the local radio mast was out of action preventing communications. So the Arboricultural Supervisor, Ray Strong, came up with a plan to prioritise clearing and opening up the main roads so that emergency services could get through – especially the fire service who were outstanding.

I was allocated a 60-ton mobile crane and operator and told to move trees, including those fallen on buildings. The first one we tackled was a big Wheatley Elm resting on the roof of a flat by Queens Park, a situation for which we had no previous experience. We came up with a system whereby the crane would hoist me up into the top of the tree (no tiresome climbing to do!) to which I would attach the chains to lift it off people’s homes. Our famous tree removal was of a big English Elm resting on the back of the Brighton Dome in New Road, pictures of which made the national news.

Leaning English Elm tree on the Dome (Leslie Whitcomb)

I will never forget the commitment, courage and skill shown by my colleagues – truly heroic tree surgeons – and feel privileged to have been part of the rescue effort. I was also able to apply the lessons learnt in the response to the major storms that hit again in January- February 1990. However I now greatly regret the overly-thorough clearance we carried out of damaged areas of woodland. This was based upon commercial forestry practice, which advocated rapid clearance of windfall sites to salvage the useable timber and leave a clean area for future management. We actually should have left more damaged trees in-situ, which would have been far better for the long-term woodland health and ecology.

Wind-felled trees at Hollingbury Woods (Argus image)

Such storms do occur, at long time intervals once every 300 years or so, which in tree terms is actually quite frequent - and so nature does adapt or even depend on this natural disturbance cycle for its renewal. However climate change is now likely to make such events happen more frequently and so the future is uncertain. In the short term, the greatest risk to our treescape is actually through disease and our propensity to import new pests and disease from all over the world. As we start to see the loss of another great native tree, the Ash from ash dieback disease, storms of a different kind are now on my mind!”

Alister Peters
Arboriculture Technical Support Officer
Brighton & Hove City Council

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