Columbus Day Storm's anniversary churns memories

By Rob Ollikainen
Peninsula Daily News

The lights went out in the third quarter of the rivalry football game between visiting Port Angeles and Sequim high schools Oct. 12, 1962.

For those in attendance, it was an ominous sign of what would be remembered as the strongest and most destructive storm to hit the Pacific Northwest in recorded history.

Fueled by a low-pressure center equal to a Category 3 hurricane, the “Columbus Day Storm” churned up winds of more than 150 mph on the Oregon and Washington coasts and more than 100 mph in the western interior.

It happened 50 years ago today.

Ted Buehner, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Seattle, described the event as “the granddaddy of all wind storms.”

“A lot of Friday night football games got disrupted by the storm,” he said.

By comparison, the storm wasn't nearly as bad along the central Strait of Juan de Fuca as it was in most of Western Washington and Oregon.

The Olympic Mountains shielded the Port Angeles and Sequim areas from the brunt of the storm.

“Not much wind,” Buehner said.

“But if you go to Port Townsend, or west, maybe starting at Joyce heading out to Sekiu, quite a lot of wind,” he said.

“The winds were so strong, we don't know how high the wind speeds were because one, the power went out, or two, the wind instruments were destroyed,” Buehner added.

The only recorded wind speed for the North Olympic Peninsula was on Tatoosh Island, where it got as high as 78 mph before instruments were knocked offline.

Strongest non-tropical

Weather experts said the Columbus Day Storm was the strongest non-tropical windstorm to hit the lower 48 states since the arrival of European settlers.

The low-pressure center hugged the Oregon and Washington coastline as it moved north, causing a swath of destruction from northern California to southern British Columbia.

All told, 46 people were killed, including 15 in Washington state, said Buehner, who didn't know where in the state the deaths occurred.

Hundreds were injured, millions lost power, and more than 15 million board feet of timber was raked from the coastline to western Montana.

In Seattle, the 1962 World's Fair closed early as winds reached 100 mph in nearby Renton.

“Some people were trapped on the Ferris wheel,” Buehner said. “I can imagine the ride they were experiencing up there.”

'Tuning fork'

On the Seattle fairgrounds, “trees snapped like matchsticks and the wind whistling through the Space Needle tripod made a sound like a giant tuning fork,” the Port Angeles Evening News reported Oct. 13, 1962.

In Clallam County, fallen trees and limbs covered the roads. Initial reports said the most extensive damage occurred in the Lake Crescent area and east county near the Jefferson County line.

Port Townsend was “almost completely isolated” by the storm, and emergency portable generators were put into service.

Travelers recounted chopping trees with an ax to get back to the Peninsula from the Bainbridge Island ferry landing the night of the Columbus Day Storm.

Although the Hood Canal Bridge remained open, it took more than three hours to get to Sequim.

“The first lights the travelers saw were those of Sequim,” the Evening News reported. “They had never looked so good.”

Janet Young of Port Angeles was living near the beach in Newport, Ore., in 1962. The winds there gusted to 138 mph on Columbus Day 1962.

Young remembers the heavy surf and the wind rattling her windows.

“Our neighbors' roof blew off the garage and landed on their car,” she recalled.

“And I remember a story about a little Volkswagen that got picked up and turned around on the road.

“All it did to us was rattle our windows, which was amazing.”

Winds kicked up

Willard Morgan of Forks was driving a dump truck on Gunderson Mountain on the West End when the winds kicked up around noon.

“It was windy enough that you couldn't stand up,” Morgan said. “It was time to come home.”

Clallam County Commissioner Mike Doherty said the storm knocked in a large window at his parents' Port Angeles home. An air pocket kept the window from breaking as it landed on the carpet.

Doherty was serving in the Navy in the South China Sea at the time. He remembers the typewritten letter from his parents, Margaret and Howard Doherty.

“Hell of a storm,” his father wrote.

University of Washington atmospheric sciences professor Cliff Mass discussed the Columbus Day Storm on his weather blog, www.cliffmass.blogspot.com.

He said the winds peaked at 160 mph at Naselle in southwest Washington, 145 mph at Cape Blanco on the Oregon Coast and 116 mph in Portland, Ore.

In those days, meteorologists had far less weather data to work with, and the Columbus Day Storm was not forecast.

“The weather prediction made on Oct. 11 was for improving conditions and no storm,” Mass wrote. “Only early on the 12th, when some ominous ship reports were received, did Weather Bureau forecasters realize that there was a serious storm approaching the region.”

More devastating today

Buehner said a similar storm would be “much more devastating” today because the state's population has more than doubled — from 3 million in 1962 to 6.8 million — and the infrastructure is far more expansive.

The Columbus Day Storm is the centerpiece of the Take Winter By Storm preparedness campaign that Buehner is promoting. The campaign recommends emergency kits with extra food and water in homes, vehicles and offices.

Buehner was 6 when he witnessed the Columbus Day Storm from his Portland home.

“The storm was what motivated and drove me into the weather business from an early age,” he said.

________

Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5072, or at rollikainen@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: October 11. 2012 5:31PM
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