By Paula Redmond

Prior to Hurricane Ophelia (which was classed as a tropical storm by the time it hit Ireland’s shores on October 16th, 2017), the deadliest most recent storm in Irish history was Hurricane Debbie. Debbie began as a tropical depression off the coast of Senegal, West Africa, on September 7th, 1961 and developed into a hurricane within a few days.

It contributed to a plane crash off Sal, Cape Verde (off the northwest coast of Africa) with a loss of 60 lives. It travelled westwards for a few days but due to satellite technology not being as advanced at that time, its exact position was not known until a KLM flight spotted it on September 10th in the mid-Atlantic.

It was labelled as a category 3 hurricane after a United States aircraft reconnaissance expedition went into the storm on September 11th and recorded speeds of around 195km per hour. The storm turned northwards and passed the Azores (approx. 850 miles west of Portugal) while continuing to accelerate.

It hit the west coast of Ireland, making landfall at Achill Island, Co. Mayo, on the 16th. It moved northwards rapidly, travelling at 60km per hour with record wind speeds being recorded at many weather stations. Travelling onto Scotland and Norway it eventually dissipated in northern Russia on the 19th.

The highest recorded wind gust in Ireland was one of 182 Km/h at Malin Head, Co. Donegal. Not since the severe storm known as ‘The Night of the Big Wind’ in January 1839 had Ireland experienced such wind. Although rain accompanied the storm it was not at record levels, with wind being the prevailing damaging force.

Some flooding did occur in the west, however. Onshore winds caused the River Shannon to rise four feet and flow backwards between 11am and 1pm, resulting in hundreds of acres of land being flooded and some roads were left submerged.

Although the storm lasted only a few hours and was over by the afternoon, it caused many fatalities and severe damage. Eighteen people died in Ireland (including Northern Ireland) in total, with deaths occurring due to trees falling, flying debris and drowning – many more were injured.

In Cavan, four members of the one family were killed (including a one week old baby) when a tree fell on their car. Another eight deaths occurred as a result of trees falling on cars or driving into fallen trees and three people died when walls or roofs collapsed.

A boy was blown into a stream and drowned in Fermanagh, while another drowned after their boat capsized in Co. Derry.

Hundreds of injuries also occurred as a result of flying debris. In Derry over fifty people were treated for injuries in Altnagelvin Hospital.

Marine damage was extensive with fishing boats blown ashore at Dingle, Co. Kerry. A 50 foot trawler broke away from its moorings in Cahersiveen and was driven up the harbour where it smashed into a bridge before sinking. Thirteen Spanish sailors were rescued from a trawler off Bantry, Co. Cork. In Salthill, Galway, forty boats were damaged or sunk.

The worst affected areas were western and northern counties. Structural damage occurred to thousands of houses and other buildings almost nationwide. The majority of damage was to roofs. The belfry was blown off Abbeydorney Church, Co. Kerry. Caravan parks were destroyed along the west coast with caravans being overturned and blown substantial distances and some left in rubble in Rosses Point, Co. Sligo.
Some described Galway as a ‘bomb-site’ in the aftermath of the storm. In Cork Airport the windows of the control tower were blown out and a construction crane was overturned.

Approximately one third of the country’s crop of wheat and oats is thought to have been destroyed. Some farmers reported losses of up to 50% of their barley crops. Some crops up to 20km inland were destroyed by sea spray carried by the wind. Half the cereal crop in Northern Ireland was destroyed.

Hay was also blown away and destroyed – at the time hay wasn’t stored in the same tightly bound bales as it is today but in haycocks that were scattered by the gusts. Forestry was also severely affected with tree losses in some areas as high as 25%.
Unfortunately, due to climate change and rising ocean temperatures, meteorologists warn that severe storm weather like Hurricane Debbie and Ophelia are likely to increase in Ireland over the coming years.