Policing the Great Storm of 1987
A Personal Account
by PC 2113 Steve Woodward
The night of Thursday 15th and 16th of October 1987 started like any other night shift at Southsea’s busy Albert Road Police Station. The usual collection of calls concerning drunks, youths damaging cars, a disturbance outside Joanna’s night club on the sea front, a raging domestic in Somers Town. Nothing unusual, just run-of-the-mill incidents that kept the clock ticking throughout the night.
Green relief at Southsea was a bit short on man power that week. Even with a shift strength of fifteen on paper, we were lucky if we put five officers out on the streets at times. There were so many abstractions for various squads, courses, leave etc., that you sometimes wondered how we coped. During this week of nights, our Inspector, Joe Edwards was away,
Sgt. 130 Laurie Mullen was on a course and for various other reasons the following shift members were also absent. PC 1205 Chris Robinson, PC 908 Nigel Linford, PC 2518 Dick Pearson and PC 1711 Pete O’Brien. So our night shift tonight consisted of PC 305 Luke Page (who was acting Sgt, because he had recently passed the promotion exam) PC 411 Roger Hogben, PC 1855 Dave Murray, PC 1070 Dave Brown, PC 1133 Pete Forster and yours truly, as the area car driver. Our SDO was WPC Vanessa Butcher (nee Bunt).
Before I left home that night, I don’t recall watching the news or the weather forecast and therefore cannot lay claim to having seen Michael Fish, the BBC’s chief weather forecaster of the time, ridicule the lady viewer who had phoned the BBC earlier, because she had heard (from where I do not know) that there was a hurricane on it’s way from the south. Even if I had, I doubt very much that I would have taken any notice of it.
As I left my house at Copnor everything appeared to be quite normal. I kissed my wife Tricia goodbye, the two kids, Kelly aged three and Daniel, just seven moths old, were tucked up in bed. It was a typical autumnal night, fairly warm, but with a stiff breeze.
After parade, PC 1070 Dave Brown and I crewed the area car and set about the aforementioned calls. As the evening wore on, the wind became stronger and stronger. By about 2330 hours it was too strong and blustery to wear your hat after getting out of the car. I started to notice small items of street debris blowing around, the occasional dustbin could be seen laying on it’s side on the footpath and the roads were awash with leaves blown from nearby trees.
I remember driving along Elm Grove just before midnight and seeing a couple of shop front awnings having been ripped to shreds flapping in the breeze like flags. Although the wind was now very strong, we barely passed comment about it. Then the radio gave us the first clue of what was about to hit.
“Charlie-one to Victor Sierra Five one, can you make the Garden House Rest Home on South Parade, apparently the front of the building has collapsed and there are two residents trapped. Hampshire ambulance are also attending”
It was now just after midnight and at the time we received that call we were heading south in Palmerston Road. I turned left onto Clarence Parade and immediately became aware of the strengthening wind. It buffeted the big, heavy Volvo 240 patrol car and made it difficult to hang onto. As we approached the Garden House Rest Home, which was situated on the junction of South Parade and a small side road, known as Kirkstall Road, I saw the spray from the sea coming ashore.
South Parade was soaked in salt water and with it came the shingle from the beach. The stones though weren’t being tossed up by the water, but were being blown off the beach by the wind and inland towards us. The patrol car was then hit by hundreds of pebbles, all along the offside. The noise was deafening. We didn’t have much chance to think about our situation though.
I could see the ambulance parked, facing us, in South Parade. As I stopped in front of it I noticed, to my amazement, that it was leaning over at an acute angle, with its near side wheels a good foot from the road! Luckily it was leaning against some scaffolding, erected on the building next door. I had enormous difficulty opening my door to get out of the car, but adrenaline was now taking over and I heaved it open.
As it slammed shut I was hit by a huge gust of wind that quite literally blew me off my feet across the bonnet of the area car and pummelled me into the railings of the rest home. Undaunted I got to my feet and looked at the rest home. Sure enough, the ground floor concrete bay window was missing. Two teenage girls, the nightshift care assistants at the home, stood at the top of the steps, frantic with worry, as there were two elderly female residents in that room.
The problem was that the internal door to the room faced south and because of the combination of the wind now coming in through the large hole at the front of the building and a pile of rubble that had built up around the door, it was impossible for them to gain access.
With brute force and ignorance Dave and I managed to force open the door and in we all went. The two poor old ladies were still in bed, absolutely covered in glass and concrete rubble. One of the window frames was lying on top of one of the beds and the two of them had sustained cuts to their hands and faces. They were very confused and upset and were taken to the Q.A hospital for treatment.
As we assisted the ambulance crew with carrying the two patient chairs to the ambulance, which was now back on all four wheels, we had to bodily protect the two residents from the flying pebbles, which were still coming from the beach, like bullets from a machine gun.
Both the ambulancemen were wearing officially distributed hard hats, which I had long taken the mickey about at previous incidents. Now, all of a sudden, I wanted one! After contacting the homeowner and Portsmouth City Councils Central Depot, on the Eastern Road to come and effect some emergency repairs to the building, we returned to the patrol car.
I looked at the offside of the vehicle and found that it was peppered with tiny little dents and that there was a neat pile of stones at the base of the car. We needed a cup of tea and a fag, so it was back to the nick.
During our rescue efforts at the rest home I was conscious of other units in the city attending other unusual calls, concerning collapsed walls and other storm related damage. It was beginning to dawn on us that this was going to be a busy night.
Back at Southsea, Luke Page took the unusual step of recalling the two foot walkers we had out on patrol and insisted that they now double up in the panda cars, because in his opinion it was just too dangerous to be out on foot. This was a good decision from someone that was awaiting promotion and showed that he had a wise head on his shoulders. Bunty made us all tea and we stood in the front office recounting our tales.
The time now was about 0130 hours.
There was a huge bang outside the station. We all ran outside and looked north towards Victoria Road North and Elm Grove junction. There didn’t appear to be anything amiss, until someone noticed that a scaffold pole had been blown from scaffolding outside the Victory restaurant in Albert Road and through the window of Allen Brothers Tyres on the corner of Victoria Grove. No sooner had we become aware of this latest incident; the shop quite literally exploded in front us.
The scaffold pole had punctured the glass, the wind got inside the premises and because both the front and sides of the building were made of glass, it just disintegrated under the pressure from the wind. We all dived to the ground as glass flew everywhere. Various expletives were muttered as we lay on the ground! After getting to our feet and brushing ourselves down, we stared in utter amazement at a car, with no driver, that was being blown by the wind, out of Elm Grove across the junction to Outram Road, where it mounted the pavement and very slowly bumped into the front of Threshers Wine Store. By now we realised that this storm was something rather different.
We were just about to go and do something about the car when there was a huge cracking sound, followed by another big bang, coming from the other side of the station in Victoria Road South. We ran around the side of the nick but could see nothing. We then heard a woman screaming and looked across the road, directly opposite the station.
I looked up and saw an enormous hole in the roof of a large Victorian house on the corner of Hereford Road. The screaming was coming from the house. We ran across the road and into the front garden. We were being pelted with red clay roof tiles that were still falling from the roof as we desperately tried to gain access to the house by battering down the front door.
I can’t remember how we got in, but I do recall that as we entered the hallway to the house, being choked by brick dust and being unable to use the lights as the electric had gone. I could still hear the sound of falling masonry and the screams of a woman in obvious trouble. We found the stairs and followed the pleas for help. As we opened a bedroom door and shone a torch into the room I saw the woman, clinging by her fingertips to a windowsill. Her husband was in a similar position at another window.
They looked like a couple of cartoon characters being hung from those ancient wall rings! We shone the torch towards the floor. There wasn’t one. It had gone. Above us was that huge hole and the night sky, with clouds racing passed. The woman was in her late fifties and dressed in her nightie, her husband of a similar age and dressed in striped pyjamas.
How had they come to be in such a position? Like us, they had heard the bang of the scaffold pole going through the window across the street. This was the first that they were aware of any storm outside and they both got out of bed to see what was going on.
They were watching us, watching the car come out of Elm Grove, when the large brick chimney stack came down through the roof, onto the double bed, through the bedroom floor, down through the kitchen and into the basement. Everything in the bedroom had gone, all the furniture, the carpet, everything. We stood in the doorway and they clung to the windowsill on the other side of the room.
How were we going to get them out? I cannot recall whose idea it was, or how we came to the decision we did, but we could see that just under the ladies feet there was a hole, where a floor joist had once been. A length of wood was found amongst the debris, probably one of the joists and this was slid across the void and pushed into the hole.
The other end was placed on the floor of the doorway and we shouted to the woman to come over. Without hesitation and in bare foot, on a rough sawn piece of timber, she ran across the black hole, with just the aid of our torch light, to safety. Her husband struggled to reach the timber and had to grab it with his hands and then hang upside down and crawl, marine style.
We shouted at him constantly not to give up. He made it and we hauled him up and into the arms of his now hysterical wife.
The fire brigade arrived and the ladies only concern now was her budgie that was in its cage in the kitchen. We looked down into the hole that used to be her kitchen. No chance. I did hear later that by some miracle, the budgie did survive to tweet another day, although its cage had been vastly reduced in size! We then left the house and had to dodge more tiles still falling from the roof
“Charlie-one to Victor Sierra five one, can you make the maternity unit at St. Mary ‘s hospital apparently the roof is coming off and they need help in evacuating the top two floors of the building”
I headed north up Victoria Road North and right into Goldsmith Avenue, where I came to an abrupt halt. Large wooden hoardings had been blown into the road and as we attempted to clear them we were hit by flying debris. I was now very concerned for my own welfare, there was just so much debris, that we were at real risk from serious injury or worse.
Everything now seemed to be airborne. Fence panels, roof slates, conservatory roofs, dustbins, glass, stones, tree branches, road signs, in fact everywhere you looked, something was either damaged or in the process of being ripped from its mountings. After clearing the road, we continued along Goldsmith Avenue and turned left into Priory Crescent where I stopped again.
A large tree had fallen from Milton Park and was now blocking the road. I informed Charlie-one.
I reversed back into Goldsmith Avenue and headed east down to the White House pub, where I turned left into Milton Road. I saw that another tree had fallen across the road, but there appeared to be a gap big enough to get through on the offside pavement. I was just about to move forward when Dave screamed out “Shit, look at that”.
He pointed towards a large Oak tree positioned on the edge of Milton Park. It was visibly shaking at its base. Then, like a Saturn 5 rocket, it took off, slowly being pulled from the ground, taking the footpath and attached fencing with it. After it left the ground it seemed to be tossed around like a matchstick before being flung into the park. “Sod this, I’m off’.
I slammed the car into reverse and got far enough away from the trees as possible. Our only safe route now was via Locksway Road, Euston Road and Velder Avenue. On route I heard the following radio transmission.
“Charlie-one to Romeo Foxtrot station, can someone take the van out to an urgent job please?”
Romeo Foxtrot Station:
“We would, but it’s laying on it’s side in the yard”
On arrival at St. Mary’s we were greeted by one of the porters who stated that all was now well and that they had managed without us. It was now almost impossible to stand up on your own, without having to take hold of something. You couldn’t talk normally to someone, you had to really shout to make yourself heard.
The wind was now just a constant roar, the noise it made was just incredible and the strangest thing of all, was that it was actually quite warm, not the usual cold winter type of wind. But it was the overall sound of it, together with the noise of the debris that I remember most of all. We were about to leave again, when I was approached by a taxi driver, who explained to me that he had driven a doctor in a white coat all the way from Worthing to St. Mary’s, to perform some life saving operation.
He went on to say that he didn’t really believe the mans story and anyway, it was now over two hours since he dropped him off and the clock was still ticking and he hadn’t returned. The porter overheard all this and then announced that they had been searching the hospital, prior to the maternity unit crisis, because of various reports of a bogus doctor, doing his rounds in the hospital. We felt compelled to conduct a brief search in an effort to find him. I remember thinking “bloody marvellous, the whole world is falling down out there and here we are searching for a lunatic in a white coat”.
Needless to say there was no trace and I broke the bad news to the taxi driver. I then really made his day by telling him that the roads back to Sussex were now completely impassable because of fallen trees and that he had no choice but to get his head down in his cab. He was not a happy man.
I then received a personal call on the radio from Bunny. Apparently my house was falling down, my wife and kids had been evacuated across the road and could I attend? The patrol car seemed to fly up the Eastern Road towards my house. I quickly glanced at the damage, part of the main roof gone, the rear extension roof gone and about sixty feet of garden wall now laying on it’s side.
Tricia and the kids were across the road at Doug and Dorothy Comey’s house, an elderly couple whose son Roger, was a scenes of crime officer at Cosham. The house was fill of other evacuees and Dorothy was there with her big teapot and she loved it. It was just like the war, she kept saying and I suppose in many respects it was. Tricia eventually opted to take the kids back across the road and they all slept downstairs in the lounge, although I’m sure she didn’t get much sleep. The house would have to wait.
“Charlie-one to Victor Sierra five one, can you have a look around the Albert Road, Fawcett Road area, we ‘we’ve had reports of four males in a red Ford Cortina, who are smashing shop windows and looting the stores”
We really didn’t need this, but I suppose you can always rely on the criminal element to rub salt into the wound. On route back down the Eastern Road we found a yacht parked on the grass verge. Funny place to leave it, I thought! Sure enough, we found half a dozen shop premises with broken windows, but then it was difficult to decide whether they had been looted or were just subject to storm damage. The sound of shop alarms now filled the air and added to the overall noise factor.
“Charlie-one to Victor Sierra five one, make Granada Road, report of building collapse, believe persons trapped, fire service on route”
On arrival a couple of minutes later we found dozens of people stood out in the street all looking up at the top of a large Victorian house, that was used as bedsits. The roof and gable end of the house had gone and had completely crushed a car parked at the side of the building. Everybody was accounted for, except for the guy who lived in the top floor bedsit.
There was no reply from his door. Dave kicked the door and in we went fully expecting him to be out. We were greeted by one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen. All that was left of the room were four walls. The roof and ceiling had vanished; clouds could be seen rushing passed our heads again. Pictures on the walls swung violently from side to side, personal papers seemed to be swirling around us, as if caught up in mini tornadoes.
There was rubble everywhere and the noise from the wind was truly frightening. And there in the corner of this tiny room was the bed. I could see a body in it and I feared the worst. I shone my torch at it and shook it by the shoulder and shouted something.
To my astonishment he rolled over onto his back and screamed! I told him we were the Police and that it was time he left. The poor man was totally confused; he just didn’t understand what was going on. Most of his possessions had been sucked out of the room when the roof came off His clothes had gone and he had nothing to put on his feet and he really could not get to grips with that noise, what the hell was it? We threw a blanket over him and bundled him down stairs to a waiting ambulance. If heavy sleeping ever becomes an Olympic sport, then that young man would definitely win the gold medal for us!
It was now about 0500 hours and we spent the rest of our time removing debris from the roads. Large fence panels and wooden roofs were littered everywhere. People were up and about, there were lights on in houses that wouldn’t normally be up at this hour. Charlie-one were still deploying units all over the city to various emergency calls.
Getting to your destination proved tricky, no matter where you went because of the number of fallen trees. We drove down to the sea front area. Most of the beach seemed to have landed on Southsea Esplanade, I lost count of the number of felled trees along Ladies Mile on Southsea Common and everywhere you looked there was devastation.
The weirdest thing to comprehend was the indiscriminate damage that the wind appeared to have done. You could look at a group of four large trees and see that three of them were all right but that the one in the middle had been snapped in two, halfway up it’s huge trunk. The power involved in that kind of destruction is awesome.
One of the saddest sights I saw, was the enormous Oak tree on the corner of Pier Road and Duisberg Way was now laying on its side. Its huge root structure was now standing erect and was easily thirty feet across. That tree must have been at least a hundred years old and had probably witnessed all manner of historical occasions and would grace the landscape no more.
The wind still howled, but it had eased somewhat. The patrol car was still being hit by bits of debris that made Dave and I duck down behind the dashboard each time. We drove passed St. Vincent Road and saw a Volvo estate car that had been completely crushed by a fallen wall.
We made our way slowly back to the station. As we stopped outside I saw Roger Hogben looking down at the rear of his Ford Escort panda car. The rear bumper and valance area had been folded underneath the car and appeared to have been crushed. Roger then related the story that he had been sent to another building collapse in Burgoyne Road and had parked the car facing south towards the sea front.
After dealing with the incident he went to get back into the car, but the wind was so strong he just couldn’t open the drivers door. He then managed to open the rear tailgate of the vehicle and clambered inside. Just as he started the engine, the car was hit by a huge gust of wind that lifted the front of the car clean off the ground. Roger reckoned the car was quite literally standing upright on its rear bumper and looking at the damage to it, I fully believed him.
The car was held in that position for just a couple of seconds (although I’m sure it felt longer than that to Roger) before the wind dropped and the car crashed back down to the ground. He was visibly shaken and felt lucky to be alive.
Green relief came back, one by one and we sat on the floor in the front office recalling the night’s events. It had gone 0600 and none of the early turn had come in. It then dawned on us that perhaps they couldn’t get in because of the huge number of blocked roads.
A quick look at the duty sheet revealed that most of the shift lived out of town, so it was likely that they were all having difficulty getting in. More important than that though was how were we going to get home? No one could phone us because all the phone lines were down and it really did look like we would all have to stay on duty. We were all totally exhausted and I personally didn’t want to do anymore,
I’d had enough. Just before 7am one of the early turn made it in. He had come from Hayling Island on his motorcycle. He said he knew it was rough when he was overtaken on Langstone Bridge by a catamaran! Slowly but surely, they all drifted in and after briefing them on the nights events and what they could expect to have to put up with for the rest of the day we all left, to pick our own way home.
I drove very slowly home, dodging all the bits of wood and tree branches that were still rolling around in the carriageway. People were standing on street corners talking to each other; some armed with shovels and brooms.
Others just stared in disbelief at a shattered tree or telegraph pole. I have to admit to feeling very numb and on hindsight was clearly in a state of shock. Dorothy was right. It was just like the war, it certainly looked like it and people’s reactions to it all were probably very similar.
I have faced many things in my life as a Police Officer, many of them life threatening or dangerous, but I have always felt in control of those situations until tonight. I can honestly say that I have never been so frightened in my life, because I was powerless to stop it.
If the ‘great storm’ as it was later dubbed had struck during daylight hours, then I shudder to think of the consequences, hundreds would have died, instead of the unfortunate dozens who did during that night. I hope I never live to see another one.
PC 2113 Steve Woodward
Southsea Area Car (January 1978 to July 1988)
Also by Steve Woodward
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