15 October 1987: the ‘Great Storm’ hits southern England

On this day in 1987, winds of up to 115mph ravaged southern England, as the worst storm for nearly 300 years hit, causing devastation.

"Earlier on today, 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..." TV weather forecaster, Michael Fish, 15 October 1987.

Technically, Fish was right. We don't get hurricanes this far north, as they are tropical storms. But a storm was certainly on its way, and it would give a few hurricanes a run for their money.

We're not short of storms in Britain. But they usually hit places that are used to it – Scotland and the southwest, for example. But on this day in 1987 a storm was brewing in the Bay of Biscay that would take an unusual line, and ravage southeast England, causing £2bn of damage, and leaving 18 people dead, plus another four dead in northern France.

The “Great Storm” of 1987 saw winds hit 115mph before the anemometer broke in Shoreham on the south coast, and 94mph in London. The average wind speed across southeast England was 50mph, and out to sea, the average was 86mph.

An estimated 15 million trees fell, blocking roads and railways, and cutting power lines. The town of Sevenoaks became Oneoak.

It was the worst storm in southern England since 1703, and was classed as a “once in 200 years” storm. And its timing could not have been worse, coming right before the weekend. Traders couldn't get to their desks on Friday, while markets around the world were selling off. When traders did return on Monday morning – AKA “Black Monday” – the stockmarket went into meltdown as panic selling took hold. The market closed down over 10%.

The failure of the Met Office to accurately predict the storm's path led to a public enquiry, and the eventual formation of the National Severe Weather Warning Service. 

New technology, including the increased use of satellites, remote sensing and powerful computers, has massively increased the accuracy of forecasts. Forecasting the weather is still notoriously hit and miss, but the Met Office isn't doing too bad a job of it – at the last count, 92% of its next-day temperature forecasts are accurate to within 2 degrees C and 91% of its next-day wind speed forecasts are accurate to within 5 knots.

Below you can see Michael Fish's infamous forecast. And to be fair, he does say it's going to get windy.

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