Great Storm 1987 - when the power networks were wrecked

Thirty years ago the South-East was devastated by its worst storm in living memory.

Thursday, 12th October 2017, 3:12 pm
Updated Friday, 8th June 2018, 4:37 am
Great Storm

In the early hours of October 16, 1987, winds of more than 100mph flattened five million trees, grounding 3,000 electricity poles and 700 miles of overhead power lines, cutting off electricity supplies to four million people across 1.4 million homes and businesses.

The storm caused unprecedented damage, felling a fifth of the South-East’s woodland, resulting in 15 years’ worth of faults on the network in a matter of hours as falling trees, branches and debris downed power lines.

Most of the network, built in 50 years, was destroyed in a matter of hours.

The majority of customers had power supplies reconnected within a day, but in densely-wooded areas some were without electricity for up to 15 days.

Help arrived from the other regional electricity boards in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland and hundreds of soldiers, including 50 Gurkhas, joined the work to clear mile-after-mile of trees lying across power lines.

As the 30th anniversary of the Great Storm approaches, the dedicated army of men and women at UK Power Networks, who were part of the former Seeboard that restored electricity supplies after the hurricane, have shared their memories of the aftermath and the lessons which followed.

Les Berry, from Burgess Hill, a linesman at the time, is now a network manager in the control centre.

He said: “It had rained solidly for three weeks and because the ground was saturated the storm uprooted the trees and there was extensive damage. I had just got married and I didn’t see my wife for two and a half weeks. The winds steadily got stronger and we kept moving from one job to another, restoring supplies. At 2.30am they sent us home for our own safety. I remember the winds blowing my Land Rover from one side of the road to the other on Shoreham flyover.”

Allen Aldridge, from Worthing, a senior project manager, returned to his old job as a linesman after the storm.

He said: “It was pure devastation and wherever you looked the network was on the deck. We worked long hours, went home to sleep and started over again the next day.”

Helicopters located areas of damage and carried staff and materials to inaccessible locations.

The stores team worked flat out to keep engineers supplied and they used as many materials in a week and a half as the company normally used in a year and a half. It took 50,000 fuses, hundreds of transformers and 700 miles of overhead power lines to restore supplies.

Lessons learnt from the Great Storm still echo today through the company’s preparations for extreme weather.

Bill D’Albertanson, emergency planning manager, said: “A storm on that scale today would challenge us, test our resources and disrupt customers’ electricity supplies. The recent storms in the Caribbean demonstrate just how powerful and destructive the weather can be.

“Our preparations and response to severe weather is constantly improving and we are better today at keeping in touch with customers who are most at risk, we have more extensive self-healing automation systems to reconnect supplies on healthy parts of the network and we use modern communications to provide more useful information to our staff and customers.”

In readiness for severe weather UK Power Networks:

- is investing £5.5million this year in tree trimming across the South East to keep tree branches away from power lines and help prevent power cuts

- closely monitors the weather to model the potential impact of the storm based on predicted wind-speeds and plan necessary resources, often several days before a storm. The weather is unpredictable and the strength and track of a storm can improve or worsen right up to the storm

- alert employees early so staff can get ready to switch from their normal duties to their storm role, including staff in office roles becoming customer call-takers. Planned work is often cancelled to enable staff to focus fully on the response to the storm

- put extra engineers, contractors, tree cutters, customer advisers and helicopter crews on alert to respond quickly if severe weather damages the network

- contact customers on the Priority Services Register and keep them updated until power supplies are restored. The company’s charity partner, the British Red Cross, are also alerted and ready to support at the scene of power cuts

Once a storm has hit the company dispatches damage assessment teams, when it is safe to do so, to pinpoint network damage and identify the resources needed for repairs. This provides more accurate restoration estimates to customers. The company also work closely with other electricity distributors across the UK to share resources where possible.

Customers can prepare for severe weather by keeping UK Power Networks’ contacts handy in the event of a power cut. You can call us (free from a landline and most mobiles) on 0800 3163 105 or by ringing 105, the national three-digit helpline for power cuts and emergencies. To receive text updates text the word POWER and your postcode to 80876, tweet @ukpn or check our live power cut map at

The company has a Priority Services Register to provide free additional help, support and advice during a power cut to pensioners, families with young children and people with disabilities or health conditions. To apply visit, ring 0800 169 9970, or email [email protected]