Let’s hear it for science! The UK Met Office was issuing warnings days ago about a storm that would sweep across the Atlantic and hit the UK on Sunday and Monday. Before the storm even existed. But if the storm was a great piece of forecasting, you didn’t need a supercomputer to predict the reaction to the storm’s approach.
From the first inkling that the country was going to be hit by unusually strong winds and heavy rain, the nation’s panicmongers went into overdrive. There were days of repeated warnings about just how bad it was going to be - with lots of allusions to the ‘Great Storm’ of 1987 (itself only a ‘great storm’ in a country that doesn’t really do big storms). This week’s storm was christened ‘St Jude’ (the patron saint of lost causes) by a Weather Channel forecaster, and the name quickly became common currency. The UK prime minister, David Cameron, made great play of holding an ‘emergency meeting’ to make sure the country was ready. Train operators decided to institute blanket cancellations of services across the south of England. At every stage, we were told to ‘be prepared’.
The result, however, was by and large a damp squib. Trees were felled and huge waves battered cliffs; fences blew over and power lines came down, with hundreds of thousands deprived of electricity, temporarily. There were four deaths, each due to a combination of bad weather and even worse luck. But while these fatalities were tragic, in the great scheme of things, St Jude was not a particularly serious event. Heavy snowfalls often cause just as much disruption, if not more, yet do not seem to provoke the kind of portentous coverage that ‘St Jude’ received. While train services were disrupted, shutting the network down in advance rather than assessing the damage first seemed like an enormous overreaction.
The lesson we could have learned from the storm is simple: that a modern, developed country like the UK is perfectly capable of surviving such an event with comparatively little damage. By Tuesday, most homes that had been blacked out had electricity again. No doubt many people will have some mess to clear up that will take a few weeks to sort out, particularly those waking up to a tree lying across their now-flattened cars. But this storm hardly lived up to the hype.
Indeed, the hype produced another storm - of cynicism. The morning commute in London, far from bearing witness to scenes of destruction, was for the most part ‘enjoyed’ by Londoners in bright sunshine and a refreshing breeze. This was a storm experienced more in the media, both traditional and social, than directly. And for every image of a fallen tree, there was another of a toppled garden chair or gnome. ‘What happened to our superstorm?’, seemed to be the sarcastic question on everyone’s virtual lips.