Thursday, October 30, 2008
These astonishing scenes are the aftermath of a deluge of hailstones that buried a town in a river of ice.
Ottery St Mary, in Devon, was plunged into chaos by the storm in the early hours yesterday.
First, the area was battered by an astonishing 12in of hail in just two hours. This blocked drains, which led to widespread flooding as the rain began to fall.
More than 100 people had to be evacuated from their homes and 25 were airlifted to safety or rescued by firefighters.
After a day of heavy rain on Wednesday more than three inches of rain and hail fell between 6pm and 8am yesterday morning.
The Met Office said the 'hugely localised' weather system was less than 4 miles across and seemed ' to be centred on Ottery St Mary'.
The most severe weather hit just after midnight on Thursday but by 5am the entire town was cut off and coastguards scrambled helicopters to airlift residents.
Emergency services were inundated with calls from terrified home owners who watched helplessly as flood water rose to 5ft high in some places, and there were fears that hundreds of animals may have been killed in the floods.
Residents in Ottery St Mary said the town was unrecognisable after the hail storm..
Sarah Galliford said: 'I was woken up by the sound of hailstones thundering down on the roof. I thought it was the end of the world. I looked outside at about 1am and there was a river of ice coming down the street. It was a total freak of nature. It wasn't even on the weather forecast. They said there would be rain but nothing like this. It was absolutely crazy.'
Clara Pedmore added: 'There is 2ft 6ins of water on the road. I can't get out of the house.One farm nearby has lost about 500 sheep which were out in fields which are now completely underwater.'
Emergency crews also sent in jeeps and fire appliances and boats to take residents to an evacuation centre at the local hospital.
Tony Fabry, who runs the town's post office, said: 'At one point I was watching beer barrels, sandwich boards and even a children's slide floating down the road.
'It was absolutely horrendous. It was a nightmare and it happened so quickly. The drains became blocked with hail and so when the snow melted it was just a deluge.'
David Garland, whose home was completely flooded, said: 'It happened in a matter of minutes and all of a sudden the whole house was deluged. I didn't have time to save anything at all because it happened so quickly. Everything was ruined.'
Fire crews rescued an elderly couple at 10.30am who were stranded on the roof of their car. The two pensioners had scrambled on top of their vehicle after they became trapped and the car started to quickly fill with water.
Susanne Reed from Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service said: 'It has been absolute chaos. It started just after midnight when we were out rescuing people stuck in their cars in flood water. It got worse and worse and one of our own crews got stuck in a 6ft hail drift. We have been rescuing people constantly.'
The Environment Agency said an 'unforeseeable and freakish' combination of factors had led to the extreme conditions in Ottery St Mary.
A spokesman said the area was 'pelted' by extremely heavy hail and rain which triggered the floods and bizarre ice-logged landscape.
He said: 'What we've seen is a very unusual combination of extreme weather - and circumstances that were unforeseeable and freakish. The heavy hail and rain seem to have solidified into what looks more like snow than anything else - it is not the normal sort of hail you would encounter.
'This is likely to have contributed to the problem by blocking drains and culverts along with other debris.'
A spokesman for Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service added: 'Around 1ft of hail fell in just two hours between 1am and 3am. Cars in the town were left tightly packed in ice and the drains were blocked meaning the water had nowhere to go.
The surrounding villages of Awliscombe, Rockbeare and Newton were also affected.
Police say scores of minor roads in East Devon were closed by landslips, standing water or flood damage and motorists were urged not to make journeys.
The town had been preparing for a carnival this weekend, ahead of its annual Tar Barrel Rolling festival on 5 November - but its bonfire was flooded out.
Ottery St Mary, population 7,000, is the birthplace of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and is renowned for its thatched cottages and picturesque winding streets.
The baby boy who stormed into the world
The hailstones were thundering down all around, the flood waters were rising and it was the middle of a freezing night.
But Juliet Hall knew that she and her husband had to brave the storm.
Her waters had just broken - and she was sure the baby wasn't going to wait for the foul weather to subside.
Mrs Hall, 34, and her husband Phil set out for the hospital around midnight in the appalling conditions, but were soon forced to stop.
The new mother, a PhD student, recalls the drama of the moment: 'I was kneeling in the back of the car and when we stopped and I saw the flashing lights I said "please don't let the road be closed" but of course it was.'
'When the police said we could not go on I was about to cry but we told them I was in labour and they said they would do what they could.'
She and Mr Hall, 42, a software company boss, had a nail-biting ten-minute wait by the side of the road.
'A police 4x4 came in about ten minutes,' Mrs Hall said.
'They transferred us to another ambulance on the other side of the flood and by the time I got to hospital I was in quite a lot of pain.'
Yesterday afternoon, after giving birth to a healthy 6lb 10oz boy at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital, she was able to look back on the episode with a smile.
'It was an exciting way for a child to be brought into the world,' she said.
The couple named their son Nathan Christopher Michael - rather appropriate given that St Christopher is the patron saint of travellers, and legend has it that he carried the infant Jesus across a river.
'Christopher is very appropriate but in fact he got the name from his great-grandfather,' Mrs Hall said.
• For the first time, scientists have proved that mankind is to blame for the warming of the Antarctic.
The study by the Met Office used temperature records from the last 50 years in new computer models.
The results showed that the collapse of the ice shelves cannot be explained by natural variations in weather. The report in Nature Geosciences means that man-made climate change has now been shown to be taking place on every continent.