This Side of the Pond – Nov. 7

By Sarah Pridgeon

I have often lamented how unprepared for adverse weather my nation insists on being, especially when compared to the people of Wyoming, but I may have to find a new excuse for my ineptitude. Though England really did just sit around waiting for the rain to start last week, my countrymen weathered the worst storm in two decades admirably.
The last great storm to hit my home country arrived in the 1980s – and was the only significant weather event that I ever encountered before uprooting to the States. I was too young to feel a sense of danger because I was still enjoying that stage of life when survival is tackled for you while you watch cartoons.
I remember that storm as an average day, a little more noisy than usual but typically free from peril. I was immune to the dread that much of the country was experiencing and spent most of it scribbling with crayons and searching the wardrobes for Narnian lions. Despite being a perfect example of unpreparedness, you may have noticed that I did survive.
In the aftermath, one spectacle alone left an impact on my youthful brain. My country is littered with the stately houses that were once home to the ruling classes; in my home county of Dorset, the family seat of the lords of the land is called Kingston Lacy (they did live in a pretty cool castle until the Civil War in the seventeenth century, but a nasty little turncoat helped the Parliamentarians blow it up.)
What used to be the driveway leading up to the manor is now a busy public road, along which stood rows of oak trees: 365 on one side and 366 on the other to represent the days of the year. When I was little, I tried to count those trees every time we drove past.
I never managed – and never will, because a fair few of them were destroyed during the storm, leaving sorrowful gaps in a once majestic sight. Though saplings were planted to replace the losses, they are no comparison to the oaks that stood there for centuries.
Aside from the avenue of trees, it was an uneventful storm for me. Had I still been in England last week, however, I may have been a little less complacent and a little more worried about my roof tiles. The storm hit with hurricane-force winds of up to 100 miles per hour and, as the day went on, caused chaos across the south. The trains stopped running entirely, ferries were stranded in the English Channel and airplanes wiggled their way into Heathrow airport as though dancing the tango were an approved landing strategy.
The storm crossed most of the continent and lost not an ounce of fury as it went. Hundreds of trees were pulled from the ground by their roots, crashing down on vehicles and houses, and the seas bellowed their displeasure in the form of colossal waves. Gas mains exploded in the center of England’s capital while pedestrians were blown about like leaves.
Somewhere in the region of 600,000 homes lost electricity across the UK and a third of those were still powerless the next day. The nuclear power station in Kent was forced to switch to its back-up diesel generators, which is never very encouraging.
I can only wonder if it was the tail end of the blizzard that hit us not long ago, arriving in Europe with a few more gusts of wind tacked on. If it was, I’m assuming that it dropped its suitcase of snow somewhere over the Atlantic and didn’t notice until it was too late to go back for it. Which is fair enough, we’ve all done it.
The storm reaped casualties all across the continent, largely thanks to the falling trees, but the vast majority of people escaped intact. For a nation that panics like an elephant that’s spotted a mouse whenever it sees a snowflake, this is an admirable achievement.
The preparation advice that was issued before the storm made interesting reading in the light of my newfound experience. There were plenty of warnings from insurance companies to move trash cans and take down hanging flower baskets, but this was mostly intended to reduce the number of claims. Homeowners were told to run a broomstick through their guttering to let the rain flow properly, local councils handed out sandbags and the Red Cross advised that everyone charge their cell phones and buy a torch, but that was about it.
At first, I shook my head in despair that nobody would be carrying a spare pair of socks and some gloves in their handbag or filling their basement with bottled water and tins of beans. I don’t think I’ve ever met an Englishman who owns an emergency radio, either.
And then it finally dawned on me: it’s because there isn’t much point. If you run out of food in a country where so many people are packed so tightly together, you need only dig three feet to the front gate and you’ll come across a corner shop that sells candy bars. Failing that, your neighbor can pass you a bowl of cereal over the fence.
Should emergency services need to issue a warning, they can open a window and shout. If your street floods and you find yourself forced to boat to safety, someone in the next town over will probably lend you a towel. We’re a sea-faring nation, after all.
This in turn explains the reaction of my peers, which was not much of a reaction at all – the infamous British stiff upper lip was very much in evidence. I couldn’t help but laugh when I watched news footage of the enormous waves crashing over the sea walls. The camera panned round, taking in the swaying trees and battering rain, to reveal a group of people in swimming caps and tiny trunks as they strolled towards the beach for a better look. I cannot confirm whether they waded in for a quick swim, but it certainly wouldn’t surprise me.
And so it turns out that the English are not ill-prepared for adversity after all – they are just as prepared as they need to be. I may barely remember the storm in the 1980s, but I did successfully survive some chilly winter days and plenty of inches of English rain. This gives me hope that I am as capable of reaching the pinnacles of Wyoming preparedness as I was in achieving a perfect survival record back home.
Incidentally, my mother assures me that the avenue of trees survived this storm unscathed. As I am not yet prepared to accept her word on it, I will confirm the happy news just as soon as she has counted them all, on both sides of the road.