55 years later, Columbus Day Windstorm still ranks as greatest in the Northwest
Editor's Note: Much of this story was written on Oct. 12, 2012 for the 50th anniversary of the storm. This version has been lightly updated for the current anniversary.
Thursday marks the 55-year anniversary of the single most devastating storm to strike the Pacific Northwest in the 20th Century.
Aptly dubbed the "Columbus Day Storm", the storm struck with great fury on Oct. 12, 1962, pummeling many areas with well over 100 mph wind gusts and causing catastrophic damage -- mainly across Oregon, but Washington wasn't necessarily left off the hook. 47 people were killed and 317 were hurt.
According to weather researcher Wolf Read, the storm caused between $230-280 million in damage (in 1962 dollars) across California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, making it the worst natural disaster to strike the U.S. in that year. Read says the storm felled 11.2 billion "board feet" of timber and, for example, damaged 70 percent of all homes that resided in Lake Oswego, Oregon.
The storm formed from the remnants of typhoon Freda and re-energized off the California coast into a super storm -- its exact path of development something that had never been recorded before in Northwest climatological history, Read said. Some of the peak wind gusts were over 145 mph at Cape Blanco, Ore., 138 at Newport, 127 at Corvallis, 116 in Portland and 96 in Astoria -- that's not only hurricane strength, but up to Category 3 strength.
Even the Puget Sound area had some amazing gusts. Although Sea-Tac Airport had a paltry 58 mph peak gust (since topped by the 1993 Inauguration Day storm, and again by the Hanukkah Eve Storm of 2006 (68 mph)), Renton reported a gust of 100, Bellingham had 98, Oak Harbor had 90 and Everett had 81 mph.
"Comparisons of peak gusts, where they can be had, tend to put the Big Blow [what he named the storm] at the top," Read wrote in his excellent research of the storm. "But such figures are abstract, and often don't reveal the very reasons why those who lived through the Columbus Day Storm remember it so vividly. The sudden violence of the wind compelled many people to take cover in their homes or basements, a lasting memory, and the sheer magnitude of destruction, in literally all categories of accounting, puts this storm far above any other."
While other wind storms have had stronger storm centers, such as the Nov. 1981 and Dec. 1995 storms, this one stands alone in how it formed -- something Read says it could be another 100-1,000 years before we see a storm like it in our future.
"The storm ruined my birthday!"
Speaking of vivid memories, there were plenty of stories to be told from those who lived through the epic event:
"I was 5 1/2 and in Kindergarten, I remember like it was yesterday," said Teresa Schomber who was in Snoqualmie, Wash. "My dad worked in the woods. The big impact item was my dad picked us up at school (we were town kids and walked) and the fact that DAD picked us up was a never happen. The wind was so strong that he carried each kid to the car one at a time because the wind was making us fly... and it was raining so hard."
She added that the school buses that picked up for Snoqualmie Falls School had men with chainsaws on them and they had to cut trees off the roads to get the kids home.
"I was 17 and in fact it was my birthday," said Shelly Weickum, who was in Burien, Wash. "My parents and sisters took me out to eat. I've never seen wind like that before or since. The wind actually picked up rocks in the street and tossed them. Windows were bowing in and out."
"I was 9 years old, in Longview," says Gretchen Loschen. "I had just gotten glasses for myopia the day before. I remember standing at the window, watching and being enchanted by the fact that I could SEE it, while my mom kept yelling...get away from that window!"
"Pacific Avenue in downtown Tacoma was completely covered with broken glass from all the blown out windows," said Barbara Cobean. "The tallest building at that time was Schonfields Furniture Store and I don't think there was a window left. At one time we passed a traffic light that was laying on the street and it was still cycling."
"I was 11 and my dad had a charter fishing boat moored in Seattle," says Nan Whitehead. "I went with him to secure the lines, and the dock was lifting and slamming down with each wave. There were boats that had already sunk."
"I remember the neighbors window breaking out and he and my dad carried a piece of plywood over to cover the open window, when a gust came up and knocked the neighbor down and my dad still had hold of the board," said Don Hoyt. "The wind picked my dad up off the ground and carried him several feet before he was able to let go, the board went flying and my dad went tumbling like a tumble weed."
Marcia Staunton was working at the federal reserve bank in Portland and said her Dad had to come and pick her up during the storm.
"Dad drove across Broadway Bridge during height of the storm," she said. "Coming home, we came passed Sears windows and saw blown-out (mannequins) striped from windows and clothes blowing around."
And then there was little Christi Baker, who it could be excused if she grew up having disdain for Mother Nature:
"It was my 4th birthday... no one came to my party!!" she said. "I was not a happy little girl."
Wind forces rare evacuation
Among the many tidbits from the storm Read uncovered is the raw notes from the weather observers in Corvallis, Oregon who had to flee the station during the storm. As the winds increased, the observers missed the 3 p.m. observation. Then at 4 p.m., the report showed a wind of 60 knots (69 mph) gusting to 85 knots (98 mph) with a peak gust that hour of 110 knots (127 mph).
15 minutes later, the report notes "ABANDONED STATION". The next day, this notation: "Unreported from 0400-1200 due to power failure and instruments demolished." Read notes that it's the only time in the history of the Pacific Northwest a supervised weather station had to be abandoned due to high winds. (Photo via Oregon Climate Services)
Read said the observers later noted the winds increased further in the 15 minutes as they were leaving, so the 127 mph reading may not have been Corvallis' peak gust.
Video of the storm in progress
Melvin P. Miller managed to get some silent 8mm footage of the storm as it passed through Albany, Ore.:
A relative posted the video on YouTube and says the reel had the hand-written title "Typhoon in Oregon Oct. '62".
Another video tour shows the damage in McMinnville, Oregon, taken by the Fulham family:
And here is the Oregonian's feature on remembering the storm from its 50th year anniversary:
How would today's models have fared in forecasting the storm?
UW Atmospheric Sciences professor Cliff Mass made a great presentation in 2012 at the University of Washington commemorating the 50-year anniversary of the storm. One of his topics was to highlight research by the UW's Rick Steed on taking today's modern forecast model and to see how it would have done in predicting the storm in 1962.
The Columbus Day Storm was poorly forecast by the forecast models of the time -- the forecast for the 12th on the 11th called for just scattered showers and had the storm much weaker and going into southern Oregon.
It was some critical observations by Weather Bureau forecasters in Seattle and Portland (many who were UW alums!) that picked up on some data that the storm was developing to give people at least a several-hour lead time the storm was approaching.
Steed went back and gathered the atmospheric data the day before and plugged it into the current forecast model of today. Would it have seen it coming?
It too had the storm much too weak, although it did get the track OK.
Mass did say the reason a modern model would have failed is that there was not enough data at the time to accurately feed a forecast model. But had a similar storm formed today, Mass was very confident that current models would see it coming. (Although some irony that four years after this presentation -- and nearly on Columbus Day -- another storm that in initial stages did have some suggesting comparisons to the Columbus Day Storm went the opposite way -- fizzled despite model predictions of damaging winds.)
As I mentioned, Read, who was also at that 2012 presentation resenting his research, has done an excellent write up on the storm at climate.washington.edu. In fact, he's written up just about every wind storm to strike the Northwest. It's a great research site, and find more at climate.washington.edu/stormking
Peak Gusts from the Columbus Day Storm
Here is a list of peak gusts as compiled by Read, sourced from the National Climatic Data Center:
- Newport, Ore: 138 mph
- Corvalis, Ore: 127 mph
- Portland (Morrison Bridge): 116 mph
- Troutdale, Ore: 106 mph
- Portland (PDX Airport): 104 mph** -- official estimate. Power failure prevented actual reading (last 88 mph as power failed)
- Renton, Wash.: 100 mph
- Bellingham, Wash.: 98 mph
- Astoria, Ore: 96 mph
- Vancouver, Wash.: 92 mph
- Salem, Ore: 90 mph
- Tacoma (McChord AFB): 88 mph
- Eugene, Ore: 86 mph
- North Bend, Ore: 81 mph
- Everett, Wash: 81 mph
- Hoquiam, Wash.: 81 mph
- Olympia: 78 mph
- Seattle (Sand Point): 66 mph
- Medford, Ore: 58 mph
- Seattle (Sea-Tac Airport): 58 mph