DORSET is counting the cost of the most devastating storms to hit the coast for decades.
Now that the worst of the weather has passed, authorities have launched a major clean-up and repair operation.
It is estimated that the overall cost could run into many millions of pounds in repair bills and losses to the economy.
Dorset County Council says it will cost £7million to repair the highway network alone.
Beaches and seafronts have been devastated, hundreds of properties flooded and farmland unusable for many months.
AUTHORITIES in Dorset say they are now moving into a recovery phase after the county was battered by relentless storms.
A hurricane force storm struck on Friday evening causing chaos for many communities.
Dorset Police Chief Super-intendent Martin Hiles, pictured inset below, declared it a major incident, setting up and leading Operation Gale.
Describing the scale of the operation, he said: “It’s unprecedented in terms of the weather.
“The issue that stands out most of all is how protracted this has been.
“It’s been an extraordinary effort over the past few days.”
Operation Gale enlisted the help of Dorset councils, the Environment Agency, the military, emergency services and volunteers.
A strategic meeting was held on Monday afternoon involving these services, chaired by Dorset County Council’s corporate resources director, Paul Kent.
The meeting discussed individuals and businesses affected by the storms and environmental issues that have arisen as a result of the crisis.
Mr Kent said: “There are certain things we’re not yet clear about.
“Where we’ve had river flooding, and the water has been at such a height that it’s covered bridges, we don’t even know if there’s been damaged to those structures until the water subsides.”
More than 400 properties in Dorset have been affected by flooding since December, including 40 businesses. The flooding has put 23,000 properties at risk.
Chief Supt Hiles said: “We’ve had no known loss of life and we’ve had no life changing significant injuries, albeit there have been people who have suffered minor injuries and of course the psychological effect of this extreme prolonged weather.
“As far as we know, there’s been no significant damage to the critical infrastructure in Dorset.”
Dorset Police confirmed 21,000 houses were initially without power on Friday evening, but this number was reduced to 11,000 by the following morning.
There are currently no significant power outages and the road network is ‘recovering’.
Chief Supt. Hiles said everyone involved ‘worked tirelessly’ and that he was proud of the work achieved.
“I’d like to emphasise how proud I am of the people of Dorset pulling together and how proud I am of the voluntary agencies. I’m very grateful for the public services.”
Despite cause for optimism, Chief Supt Hiles urged for caution, particularly around areas where landslips could occur.
He said: “We’re not out of the woods yet. It’s half-term.
“We have got the potential for landslips. Fossil hunters and tourists might not be so aware of what’s been going on at the coast.”
A dedicated helpline remains in place to support those affected by the storms. The number is 01305 22100.
Construction work suspended to repair
WORK on construction schemes across the county has been suspended to free up resources for Dorset’s weather-ravaged roads.
The county council has spent more than £700,000 on tackling weather-related highways problems since Christmas Eve.
The long-term cost of repairs to the network is likely to be around £7 million.
Dorset County Council crews are being redeployed to help tackle road repairs, blocked ditches and drainage problems caused by recent torrential downpours and strong winds.
Construction projects suspended over the next couple of weeks include work on Portland Beach Road in Weymouth and the Pimperne School access road in Blandford. The Bradpole Cycleway in Bridport, improvements to East Street in Blandford and a cycleway extension on Black Lane in Blandford will also be delayed.
Council chiefs say that while the council is lobbying for extra government money to help with the repair bill, its immediate priority is to keep roads open and safe to use.
Andrew Martin, Dorset County Council’s head of highways operations, said: “The current weather has made it very difficult to carry out some of our construction projects cost effectively and safely.
“Suspending construction work means more people will be available to tackle pothole repairs, clear out ditches and gullies, move fallen trees and ensure drainage systems are working properly.
“Even if the rain stops soon, we’ll have still have a sizeable backlog of issues to sort out, so it makes sense to suspend or delay these construction schemes for a couple of weeks.”
Suspension of the various highways work comes after boulders from Portland quarries were rolled into place at Preston Beach in Weymouth in an effort to shore up the sea defences.
The Environment Agency is spending £100,000 on the operation at Preston Beach alone.
Chesil Beach and Chiswell on Portland were also badly affected by the weather and Portland Beach Road has been closed many times due to flooding threats.
Prime Minister David Cameron also visited the island last Monday to discuss flood defences.
Cllr Hilary Cox, cabinet member for environment, added: “Our highways teams are putting all their efforts into ensuring that our residents suffer as little as possible from storm-damaged roads, and making it safe for people to travel.”
Information signs will be displayed at construction sites where work is suspended or delayed. For more information call 01305 221020.
Neil Watson, a coastal engineer at the Environment Agency, said recent events had tested them to the limit.
He said that defences had held up well, despite being ‘hammered’.
Mr Watson pointed to the number of stones that had been shifted from Chesil Beach.
“Last Thursday we lost a quarter of a million tonnes. There’s probably another hundred thousand tonnes gone.
“We’re going to have to work very hard to restore those defences.
“But you can be assured that people have been protected and the work over the past eight weeks to keep that beach in place with the army has been absolutely essential.”
Lt Col. Chris MacGregor, Dorset military liaison officer, confirmed the military had been involved in West Bay, Portland and in Christchurch since Friday.
The military will work alongside the Environment Agency with the reconnaissance of flood defences over the next six weeks.
This is a project that would normally take up to two years.
He said: “Along the South Coast in Dorset here, we will also allow our aviation assets – our helicopters – to fly above the Jurassic Coast to conduct an aerial reconnaissance of that very vulnerable coastline.”
He added the Olympics and Paralympics in 2012 provided agencies a great opportunity to work together, which helped when preparing against the storms.
Matt Reeves, representing Wessex 4X4 and other volunteer groups, said they were well prepared for the county’s latest storms.
He said: “The voluntary agencies were involved in some of the preparation and planning for this event, which meant when the event did start we were in a good place to respond.”
Mr Reeves confirmed 24 4x4 response teams were out across the county, helping authorities by providing reliable transport.
A number of rescue centres, some of which were set up by the local community, also received great support from the British Red Cross.
Mr Reeves was grateful for the help received. He said: “Thank you to all the volunteers across the county who came out.”