Britain mops up after desvastating storm. Country gets back on feet after heavy winds, rain leave trail of destruction

Britons are still counting the cost of a storm that struck virtually without warning a few hours before dawn last Friday, killing 17 people and causing widespread devastation. It was the worst storm in memory, with damages estimated at more than $1.7 billion.

On Sunday, winds averaging 40 miles per hour struck western England, Wales, and northern England. Swollen rivers burst their banks as cars were swept off roads.

Yesterday some 350,000 homes in southern parts of England were still without electricity. Insurance companies were bracing themselves for more claims as policy-holders assessed the full impact of the hurricane-force winds that reached over 100 miles an hour in many places in and around London.

Roofs were lifted off houses and tens of thousands of trees felled, creating havoc for road, rail and air services. For many hours after the storm, much of southern England had no electricity.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher yesterday ordered a special group of ministers to mount an urgent investigation into how emergency aid could be supplied to the worst-hit areas. Thousands of farmers reported the loss of barns and other buildings. In the towns and cities, houses in even moderately exposed areas sustained heavy damage.

Some insurance companies were advising clients to carry out immediate repairs without even waiting for insurance estimates.

The mighty gale came sweeping in from the south without British weather-forecasters giving any warning to the population.

An investigation is under way to discover how such a violent storm eluded the forecasters. But the main effort has gone into cleaning up cities, towns and the countryside.

Among the most obvious long-term casualties were trees. Huge numbers of trees in southern England were uprooted.

At Kew Gardens near London, one third of the trees were destroyed, many of them rare species which cannot be restored for several generations.

The Chelsea Physic Garden in London which dates back to 1673 and is world famous for its rare trees and shrubs was devastated.

Many of the trees lost had been standing in waterlogged ground after a rainy summer and when the hurricane-force winds hit the roots were not firmly anchored enough to withstand the buffeting.

Commercial orchards in southern England suffered heavily and many will take seven years to recover.

After hitting the south of the country, the storm moved north. By then it had lost some of its power but continued to do damage.

The wind was carrying rain with it and floods were an added problem in areas such as Wales and Cumbria.

In the aftermath of the storm, some of the worst sufferers were elderly people. In areas where power could not be restored quickly, they were without light and heat, and in many cases also lacked water as pumping stations had ceased to function.

Police and soldiers were at work yesterday, trying to ease the distress in remote areas. But at the time of this writing, it was expected that some houses would remain without electricity for another week.

In the past four days, helicopters have been criss-crossing southern England, spotting trees that had fallen across roads and railway lines.

By yesterday all main trunk roads and rail links were back in service but hundreds of minor roads remained blocked.

As things steadily came back to near normal Nicholas Ridley, Britain's Environment Secretary, called the devastation ``unbelievable.

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