Friday marks the 56-year anniversary of the single most devastating storm to strike the Pacific Northwest in the 20th Century -- The Columbus Day Storm of Oct. 12, 1962. That storm pummeled 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.
You might be wondering how that storm compares to the Category 4 Hurricane Michael that just went through Florida and is still causing headaches Friday.
It's difficult to compare a hurricane, which is a tropical system, to Pacific Northwest wind storms. Hurricanes have their most intense winds around the eye wall and can sustain incredible wind speeds over several minutes, like this:
NW storms strongest winds are across a wide swath to the south of the low center and tend to be more gusty like this:
But to give some sort of peg, the central pressure of the Columbus Day storm, which is a measure of a storm's strength, was about 960 mb -- not quite a record lowest for a NW storm (1995 storm had 950) but compare that to the center of Hurricane Michael which was 919 mb -- the third lowest storm pressure to strike the United States.
Hurricane Michael had *sustained* wind speeds estimated at 155 mph by hurricane hunter aircraft with a recorded peak gust at Tyndall Air Force Base at 129 mph off sustained winds of 86 mph before the wind gauge failed (so may have gone higher). Another indicator is the difference in pressure over short distances which create the incredible winds. At Astoria, Oregon, the pressure dropped 29 milibars over roughly 12 hours in advance of the Columbus Day Storm. Tyndall AFB reported a pressure drop of nearly 50 milibars -- in *1* hour.
The Columbus Day Storm did have a tropical heritage -- forming from the remnants of typhoon Freda and re-energized off the California coast into a super storm. It was unique in that its exact path of development was something that had never been recorded before in Northwest climatological history, according to meteorologist and noted Northwest windstorm researcher Wolf Read. 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. Again, those were gusts, not sustained winds, but beyond anything the region had witnessed since weather has been recorded here.
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.
People have asked how would the Columbus Day storm be rated had it been a hurricane? If you assume gusts go about 30 percent higher off sustained winds, you're looking at likely sustained winds of 75-90 mph in some of those higher reported gusts along the coast, which would put the Columbus Day storm as... a Category 1 hurricane. That might seem paltry, but remember Northwest storms can have a wider geographic reach of a storm's peak winds than a typical hurricane eye wall. Also remember: The Pacific Northwest has dense Douglas fir forests for tree falls; hurricane-prone areas have more sporadic, tropical trees that can withstand wind better.
And boy did those trees fall. 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.
"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.
But even though it's the king of our storms, it still paled in comparison to Hurricane Michael's fury.
Maybe a better comparison: Hurricane Hazel?
So while Hurricane Michael certainly gets the nod over the Columbus Day Storm, Read found another hurricane that might be considered on par: Hurricane Hazel in 1954 that struck the Eastern Seaboard.
"Possibly Hazel wasn't a far cry different from the Columbus Day Big Blow--both storms seem to have spent part of their existence in a gray zone between solidly defined hurricanes and midlatitude cyclones, the mark of Nature's disdain for the hard categories often created by humans," Read said. "And, indeed, there are plenty of similarities between Hazel and the Columbus Day Storm: both storms had a significant tropical influence, both made landfall in mid-October, the two storms first struck to the south and then veered northward at a fast clip and raced all the way into Canada, they kicked up record wind speeds over a large part of their prospective afflicted coastal strips, and they dumped heavy rains over large regions....
"This is to remind the reader just how powerful the Columbus Day Storm was, evidence that the Pacific Northwest can be struck by truly severe weather on occasion."
Wind forces rare evacuation
Among the many tidbits from the Columbus Day 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 sustained 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.
Also of note that shows how many would have been caught off guard -- the report just two hours' prior to that 127 mph? Totally calm ("C")
"The storm ruined my birthday!"
Six years ago for the storm's 50th anniversary, we asked our readers who were here for the storm to share their memories. I'm sure they're still as vivid today!
"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 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."