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Wind storms and...tornadoes? Dec. 12 a busy day in Seattle weather history

LEFT:{ }Photo of an F3 tornado touching down in Kent on Dec 12, 1969. (Courtesy: YouNews contributor Daaave). RIGHT: Surface chart showing intense low pressure center approaching Washington coast on Dec. 12, 1995 (NOAA Map)

Late fall is the heart of our stormy season so if you were to go back in the history of any date this time of year, you'd probably find a storm or two. But December 12 has had a few in particular that really stand out -- the worst tornado on record to hit the Seattle metro area, and a wind storm that recorded the lowest all-time pressure in the city.

Makes today's kinda blah, grey day seem especially quiet, eh?

The photo above, submitted by YouNews contributor "Daaave", was taken of an F3 tornado that touched down in Kent on Dec. 12, 1969. Despite the intense storm, only one person was hurt and no one was killed.

"I remember the Kent tornado quite well," Carolyn Walden said during an interview for my blog in 2013. "I watched it from near where your photo (above) was taken (I worked at the Boeing Space Center down on West Valley Highway). It came in a northeast direction from near what was at least then called Midway, up on Kent's West Hill, where my then-husband worked.

"The only real damage I remember was a billboard and a farm house (or one of its sheds or other outbuildings) right next to the Green River on the west side of the bridge that crossed the river on Kent-Des Moines Road (Hwy 516)... it was scary!"

Overall, only five tornadoes have touched down in King County since records have been kept since 1880 -- three of them in the 1960s! The first ever recorded tornado in the Seattle area struck the Sand Point neighborhood on Sept. 28, 1962 (just a few weeks before the great Columbus Day Storm). Its wind speeds were clocked at 100 mph and was rated as an F1 tornado on the Fujita scale.

According to Historylink.org, the tornado damaged eight homes in Sand Point/View Ridge, then it turned into a waterspout as it crossed Lake Washington. The twister went all the way across the lake (what a sight that would have been had the 520 Bridge been built yet (1963)) and then made landfall again in the Juanita area of Kirkland, damaging more homes and toppling dozens of trees.

(In fact, there's an interesting anecdote on that Historylink summary that one person quoted in a Seattle P-I article back then as witnessing the tornado and experiencing damage at their Juanita home was Mary Gates -- the mother of Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, who was 7 at the time.)

If we expand out to Snohomish and Pierce Counties, there have been quite a few more: Snohomish County has had 7 tornadoes, all since 1970 -- 2 F2s, 2 F1s and the rest F0s.

MORE | History of tornadoes in Washington

Pierce County has had nine tornadoes since 1978 -- the most recent on Jan. 18, 2015 near Gig Harbor. Statewide, Washington averages about two tornadoes a year, most in the weak F0 to F1 category. That average recently was declared up from one a year -- most likely helped by our 1997 season that had a record 14 tornadoes.

26 years later, a really big wind storm

Then in 1995, what looked like it could have been the champ of all wind storms to strike the Pacific Northwest, dethroning the Columbus Day Storm, came ashore. An intense low pressure center deepened as it approached the coast to an amazing 954 millibars -- among the lowest center pressure readings of a storm near the Northwest coastline.

That was near the start of my career and I remember just watching the charts in amazement at how low the pressure went. As I sat in the KOMO Weather Center -- we had a digital barometer in there and if you stared at it long enough, you could actually watch it drop 0.01 inches every short while as the storm approached.

The storm would go on to set the record for lowest sea level pressure recorded in Seattle at 28.65 inches (I remember having to remind Steve Pool to read the current pressure during the newscasts as "28-point (number)" and not "29-point" -- never had to read a "28" pressure reading before! We even changed the pressure text color to yellow on the current conditions page).

And while it did do some damage around the region, we were actually spared the worst as the storm stayed slightly farther offshore keeping the strongest winds away from Oregon, according to noted windstorm researcher Wolf Read. And while it made a classic track into Northwestern Washington, Read said the storm center ended up being a bit more broad than anticipated, which eased some of the pressure differences.

MORE | Wolf Read's Dec. 12, 1995 wind storm research

As it was, winds hit 107 mph in Newport, Oregon, 86 mph in Mukilteo, 69 mph in Hoquaim, 76 mph in Bellingham, 66 mph in Olympia, 64 mph in Everett and 60 mph in Seattle.

So had it made a direct impact at worst case scenario, I imagine it wouldn't need this blog to be reminded about every year.

Nearly 100 years ago, it was really cold...

The Twitter site Day in Wx History (@weather_history also points out Dec. 12 holds a spot among the Northwest's greatest cold snaps (although not really holding a candle to January 1950 in the Seattle area) but it sure was memorable in Portland!

Seattle's high was 25 with a low of 12 that day. January 1950 would go on to have several days with lows in single digits.


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