Five years ago this week a tornado ripped through parts of south Birmingham damaging thousands of homes and businesses. Neil Elkes looks at its impact and aftermath.
For sweet shop owner Khalid Rafiq the day the tornado hit Birmingham is a day he will never forget. He was serving customers in Royal Sweets on Ladypool Road when the sky suddenly grew dark.
“Some children came inside as it grew extremely dark,” he recalls. “There were trees blowing down the street. I tried to get the shutter down but it was going slow. The windows smashed, there was debris, bricks, dust, bushes flying about.”
His shop, including the entire display of sweets and cakes, was covered in a thick layer of dust, leaves and debris. The police arrived within seconds and told them to get out before the building collapsed.
The father-of-three added: “The damage was huge, our roof was off and the chimney had come crashing down through it and through the floorboards. I saw overturned cars outside. I can’t believe no-one was seriously hurt, it was a miracle.”
Mr Rafiq’s shop was one of many hit when the tornado tore through Kings Heath, Moseley, Balsall Heath and Sparkbrook on July 28, 2005, leaving a £40 million trail of devastation in its wake.
The twister left a trail destruction along a one kilometre path in just four minutes.
Traders recall the fading light and the wind rapidly picking up, rattling doors and windows to begin with and then turning over cars, ripping up trees and stripping the roofs off rows of buildings.
Debris was hurled about along with fruit from market stalls, bricks, stones, shards of glass and branches, leaving a trail of devastation.
Heavy chimneys crashed through homes and a truck was flung 100ft down Brunswick Road.
Worst hit was Ladypool Road in Balsall Heath where more than two thirds of buildings were damaged – and the most startling were rows of terraced houses with their bedrooms open to the elements.
The empty Ladypool Primary School was ruined, losing its distinctive Martin & Chamberlain tower. A few days earlier it would have been full of children.
Those who witnessed the four minutes of destruction are still amazed that no-one was killed and that only 20 people needed hospital treatment – to them “miracle” is not too strong a word.
Walking along Ladypool Road now there is little, if any, evidence of the tornado. In fact the shop fronts are smart and the lights, bollards, CCTV cameras, new car parks, railings, paving and road surface all seem to be in a better condition than other parts of the city.
It is a far cry from those grim weeks after the tornado when there was scaffolding on every other building and you could gaze into the bedrooms of whole terraces. War zone comparisons were not exaggerations.
This regeneration follows a major effort by the shopkeepers, backed with £1 million investment from the city council, to rebuild and repair the Balti Triangle, both physically and economically.
There was direct investment in infrastructure as well as grants of up to £50,000 to businesses, as long as the sum was at least matched with their own investment.
City Council regeneration co-ordinator Roger Hale said it had been such a success that it would provide the blueprint for a similar revival of Stratford Road.
He said: “We did a hell of a lot of work from the start. At first we had hundreds involved in the clean up and evacuation, then it became about the recovery. A quarter of the properties in Ladypool Road were too unsafe for people to return to and we had to deal with that.”
He added: “There was a determination to help and regenerate the Balti Triangle that still remains today.”
Significant funding has been earmarked to plough into the Stratford Road corridor, including the demolition of derelict council-owned buildings on the corner of Highgate Road. As the economy improves the land will be sold for development.
Mr Hale added: “The area is looking run down so we are talking about major road improvements and encouraging the businesses to invest in their shops and make it a more pleasant place to shop and visit.”
On the fifth anniversary of the tornado traders have been recalling the events of that day. Sim Minhas, of Kafé Karachi Restaurant in Ladypool Road, said: “Suddenly fruit was flying in the air and debris was hitting the windows.
“Alarms were going off, windows were being smashed, the noise was terrific, it was absolute mayhem.
“I ran back to my property to find windows smashed, the back door thrown open, and the shop sign and many roof tiles missing.”
Imran Afzal Butt, the 32-year-old owner of Imrans in Ladypool Road, said that a lot of damage was done in a very short space of time.
“We had a lovely tree-lined car park, but the tornado uprooted the trees like a row of dominoes one after the another. I am still amazed that no-one died.”
In the immediate aftermath some 900 council staff were drafted in to begin the clean up. They found places for evacuees to live, put scaffolding up to protect buildings, cleared rubble and debris and started the restoration process.
Meanwhile, police and security guards mounted round-the-clock patrols to protect the vacant buildings, and people’s possessions from looters.
Even those shops which were largely undamaged were still unable to trade for many days as they waited for the roads to be unblocked.
It took a major marketing drive lasting months to convince people that the Balti Triangle was back in business.
There were frequent visits from council leader Mike Whitby, a Balti Triangle campaign enthusiastically launched by the Lord Mayor John Hood and even a walk about by the Duke of Edinburgh.
Secretary of the Ladypool Business Association Akram Ul-Haq, of Amanit Ali Halal Meat said the main frustration early on was the road closure.
He said: “It was closed for a long time. When it re-opened things remained very difficult, as even if lorries could get down to drop off stock, they often couldn’t turn around again to get out.
“People were reluctant to visit the area for quite some time, and trade was hit.
“The council helped to clear the street and make buildings safe, co-ordinated insurers and builders, and started bringing traders together, but apart from that we were pretty much left to deal with the aftermath alone.
“It needed at lot of investment over many years to get to where we are now. It forced shops to invest in new signs and fronts, when they might otherwise have left it.”
Mr Alfaisal Ajaib, of Al Faisal’s restaurant in Stoney Lane, Sparkbrook, saw some benefits.
“There was a bright side, in more people coming into the area to see the damage, which balanced out some of the other lost trade.
“There was a definite community spirit, everyone helped each other, even businesses that were competing against each other, it brought them closer together.”
FACTS ON THE 2005 TORNADO
* The tornado struck at about 2.30pm on Thursday, July 28, 2005 and lasted four minutes
* It passed through King’s Heath, Moseley, Balsall Heath and Sparkbrook
* The Met Office estimated wind speeds of between 93 and 130 mph
* It passed 4,400 homes, 617 businesses.
* Damage to property was estimated at £40 million
* In Ladypool Road 114 out of 158 businesses suffered some form of damage
* More than 1,000 trees were uprooted
* There were no severe casualties and just 20 people required hospital treatment
* 169 people were evacuated to temporary accommodation
* 900 council staff were involved in the initial clean up on the ground
* Of 1,000 properties assesed by city surveyors, 200 were found at risk of collapse