The Great Storm of 1987 remembered

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TWENTY-five years ago ferocious winds of more than 100 miles an hour brought devastation to the East of England and caused damage to the electricity network on an unprecedented scale.

The work of 50 years spent building up a power distribution network in the region was destroyed in a few hours in the early morning of October 16, 1987 - and restored in a fortnight.

As the 25th anniversary approaches, a senior manager at UK Power Networks recalls the events of the day itself and the weeks of effort that followed the Great Storm that wrought havoc across East Anglia. 15 years’ worth of faults causing power cuts occurred in just a few hours.

About 750,000 customers were left without power but within 30 hours after the storm hit, that number had been reduced to 350,000.

And nearly 3,000 company staff plus 1,000 other works from other companies and the Army were mobilised.

Les Waters is now UK Power Networks’ area manager for much of Suffolk and Essex. But in 1987 he was an overhead lines foreman working in north Essex in difficult circumstances.

He said: “We were facing a mammoth task to rebuild the overhead lines. Within just a few hours the network had suffered 15 years’ worth of problems and it was so difficult to get out to repair them.

“I remember literally cutting my way down a country lane in Essex, using a chainsaw, to reach our equipment. Without the technology we have today, we had to rely on local people to tell imported staff where the power cables and poles were!

“I was also given the first mobile phone in the company, to use when I went up in one of 16 helicopters we used to help spot where overhead lines were down and report back.”

The helicopters were also used to move staff and equipment. In the first week after the storm hit, six months’ worth of overhead line equipment sticks were used for repairs and further shipments were flown in from France.

The restoration work was hampered by roads blocked with trees, telecommunication problems and heavy rains and flooding in the days following the storm.

In the first few days after the storm the full extent of the damage was hard to quantify as much of the network is rural and it was difficult to access due to blocked roads.

Eastern Electricity, which ran the electricity network at the time, had emergency plans in place before the storm. These were tested to the limits and some key lessons were learnt, which have been incorporated into the working practices of UK Power Networks.

Additional safeguards include a more rigorous tree-trimming programme, which will mean the company will spend about £23million in the South East and East of England this year alone, and a £1.8billion investment plan for the five-year period to 2015 to further increase the resilience of the network.

We use weather forecasts now combined with past experience and past damage to the network to help predict how many extra staff we will need to cope. This is across all departments, from engineers to call centre workers.

There are better and different equipment. One example is more 4x4 vehicles to help us reach incidents more quickly and easily. We can also use satellite navigation to get the nearest engineers to site quicker and can often restore power remotely by computer rather than having to travel to site.

Customer service has also improved. Customers can keep track of power cuts and repairs on line with our postcode checker and via phone text messages. We also update customers on Twitter and call customers back after they’ve contacted us.

There is also now an established working relationship with the British Red Cross who work on our behalf to help give practical support to customers without power. They will have the latest information for customers affected by the power cut on how work is progressing and can provide hot drinks to those who need them. They will also be calling on any vulnerable customers we are aware of.

This is in addition to a customer champions scheme where specially-trained staff are sent to site to help customers in problem locations.