The great storm that hit the East Anglia Coast on the morning of Friday 16th October 1987 was not forecast nor prepared for by the Suffolk Coastal District Council, which I was ‘Assistant Director Technical Services’ at the time.
We had quite sophisticated Emergency escalation preparations across the council, in terms of both civil and military emergencies, with a constant coast watch following the 1953 floods, worries about Sizewell following Chernobyl the year before and even reports of flying saucers over the woods near our various RAF stations.
The few days before the storm hit (which was force 12 on the Beaufort scale, but technically not a Hurricane) we had had considerable rain fall, leading to many areas of potential inland flooding, with drainage crews working all hours to pump out our many areas of low lying land.
At around 4:30 in the morning I was woken up by the sounds of shifting tiles on my roof and a buffeting of the house, with a discernible shaking as the wind struck. However, being well used to being woken up by my two young sons, I had no problem going back to sleep.
We woke at around 6:30 to discover the extent of the problems, with mains electricity still on most of the time, despite our very rural location.
Despite the force of the winds that were in full force, I decided to set off for work some 14 miles away. The telephone lines were down, and mobile phones were a back-breaking rarity, with battery packs weighing in at 7 kilograms.
My wife was not impressed with me deciding to leave her in the grips of the storm, but I did ask my neighbour to keep an eye out in case there was later severe damage to the house.
Getting to work!
I lived in a lovely village called Debenham; some 14 miles away from the council depot I was aiming for in Ufford, being the main operation depot for Suffolk Coastal DC.
There were many fallen trees with telephone and power lines randomly across the roads. After a while I found myself behind a farmer with a couple of chain saws, so he and his colleague cut up the trees and a few drivers from a growing convoy pulled the trees out of the way. Risk assessment was basic, did it look safe? Yes, let’s do it!
Despite the continuing gales and the amount of debris, I believe I got to work in under 90 minutes, which was incredibly fast. On arrival at the depot, I wasn’t at all surprised to discover that the whole of my workforce was at work, not one single absentee.
The flat roof had been ripped off the building maintenance office and was strewn across the yard and a neighbouring field. The more traditional roof of the stores was also very badly damaged, with several areas missing entirely.
Most people were out and working, our phone lines with the main office in Woodbridge was working, with dozens of building maintenance works orders coming through the connected IT systems.
All normal work was suspended, everyone was deployed looking at properties, seeking to make them safe and secure. Generally skilled tradesmen were pairing up with others, to enable maximum capability to react to the numbers of issues faced while being able to work safely, especially with the ongoing threats from the gales to bring down more debris.
The drainage team had been hardest hit in many ways, they had already been working long anti-social hours over the prior few days, and now power was unavailable to the majority of sewage pumping stations, which if left unmanaged, would create numerous floods and tens of thousands of households without the ability to flush their loos, or even worse, the back flooding to low lying estates.
We had one mobile generator to push sewage from station to station. Anglian water couldn’t be contacted to borrow another, and no hire firms had one big enough to hire to us. We were facing a very messy problem.
With forecasts of far more wind and rain, I organised a dozen operatives to be back at the depot for noon, hoping that the infamous ‘eye in the storm’ would give us a calm time to create temporary roofs for the offices and stores.
Oddly at noon, all was calm and we rigged some tarpaulins held down by railway sleepers and sand bags, hopefully strong enough to survive a second phase of storms.
My car was nearly out of fuel, and most petrol stations were closed due to lack of power, so I was issued with council fuel, but made a point of paying in full, straight away.
The main council offices in Woodbridge were quite different to the depot, less than half the staff were at work, there were no ‘emergency meetings’ of Management Team to discuss the storms. Nothing from my Corporate Director, and the council Emergency and Safety Officer was no-where to be seen.
After some discussions with a few officers about what was happening on the ground, and liaison with the Housing Client officers about tomorrow’s plans (that being a Saturday), I returned to the depot to see how things were going.
My first port of call was the drainage manager’s office. Tim sat in his chair, head dropping, eye’s red and sore, from far too many hours continuous work. After a quick word with his Supervisor, who was far fresher. I ordered Tim home, to get some rest and be fit for work the next day. He tried to argue, but simply didn’t have the where-with-all to fight me.
An hour or so later Tim’s wife called me, totally incredulous that Tim was home, when the area was in such a state. She was so pleased he was home.
The near 24/7 service to keep those pumping stations from flooding was partly in shape, with crews literally shifting s**t from one place to another, with 17 stations with no power.
The Building Maintenance office was still in full swing, with Christmas lights being used in the absence of the previous roof lights. Roger and Albert were in seventh heaven, they were inveterate council officers, loving the ability to add value to such a crisis.
The Stores set up ran by John was starting to take shape, with surprisingly low stock damage, as the wind damage had largely been before the rain returned. We were ruing the sale of thousands of tiles that hadn’t moved in years only a fortnight before, now we were trying to buy them back.
At around 17:00 I drove home, before it got to dark, seeing forests that had been levelled as if dozens of bombs had hit them.
Having made sure my own house was broadly OK, I pleased my wife by saying I’d only got to work for a couple of hours, just to make sure everything was OK.
As I drove in I saw dozens of badly damaged houses and forests where the outside trees still stood, while all the inside ones had sheared off half way up the trunks. (I later learned this was because of vortices creating a hammer effect on the inner trees). Many trees also had simply fell over with their roots in the air, where the muddy ground had liquefied with too much water followed by the vibrations from the storm.
Tim was in the depot looking half way fit for work. Their biggest problem was that a single generator simply wasn’t enough to keep the system flushed.
I went into the housing maintenance office and was amazed that Roger and Albert were there, but the phones were silent, and had been all morning. So; I drove over to HQ in Woodbridge to find a full Housing Client office, with no calls coming in. No other senior officers had come in, that is not the Chief Executive, nor the Corporate Directors or any Management Team. Saturday was a day of rest!
I asked why there were no calls, and they said no one was in to look after the switchboard. They knew the normal operators, so we looked up their names in the phone book, I got through to one and explained our problem and asked her if she would come in?
She replied, “Have you the authority to bring me in?” I thought about it and said, ‘No. But I think I can get it squared on Monday.”
“OK” She replied, “I’ll be in in ten minutes, thanks for the call.”
As soon as she was in we had a deluge of calls.
On return to the depot I learned that we had borrowed another generator from a local farmer who knew Tim, and we were in full swing of making sure the s**t didn’t hit the fan.
I finally got home around 3:30 and was greeted by my next door neighbour with a self-help proposition, we could use his ladder to refix his TV Aerial, then my own, we then did around thirty more before the light was fading too much for safe working.
The drainage team eventually heard from Anglian Water about three weeks after the storm. Ours was the only district across their whole area that hadn’t had floods due to power cuts, they were inquisitive ‘how did we manage that?’
The housing maintenance team were assigned whole streets of inspect, record and repair options. We made safe and repaired more properties in the month after the storm than ever before by about a factor of three.
I met with the insurance loss adjuster and got the funding to repair and replace the depot roofs within a few days of the storm, then met with the Principle Accountant to utilise some emergency repair funds, which between them allowed us to raise the roof in stores, increasing stock capacity by 60%, with Roger taking delight in designing the layout and 3D space utilisation.
I don’t recall any special Department or Council Management Team discussions re lessons learned, or why had it gone so well? But maybe my memory is jaundiced after thirty years.
That was a ‘one in two hundred year storm’ taken as ‘business as usual’ by my wonderful team.