PAT NEAL: A short history of hurricanes

IT WAS A dark and stormy night.

The wind roared through the timber like a freight train. I thought it would rip the roof off the shack, but it didn’t.

Eventually the morning came. The crows woke up and flew around in crazy circles like they were glad to be alive, and so was I.

People don’t think of the Olympic Peninsula as hurricane country, but it is.

There was the Hanukkah eve storm in December 2006, when hurricane-force winds of 70 to 100 mph hit Washington, causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damages, killing 14 people.

Although, most of the deaths occurred after the storm due to asphyxiation caused by people using gasoline generators and charcoal barbecues indoors.

Then there was the 1979 big blow that took out the Hood Canal Bridge.

The bridge withstood a south wind of 80 mph that gusted to 115 mph until a severe list developed, allowing water into the flotation devices that kept the floating bridge afloat.

Replacing the bridge took three years and cost $140 million, and headaches for anyone traveling to or from the Olympic Peninsula.

Who could forget the Columbus Day Storm of 1962? This big blow began life as Typhoon Freda out near Wake Island in the Central Pacific.

She grew to become the most powerful extra tropical cyclone to hit the Washington coast in the 20th century. Wind speeds were recorded in excess of 145 mph at Cape Blanco, Ore., until the anemometer, an instrument used to measure wind speed, was destroyed. A 160-mph wind gust was observed in the Willapa Hills of Southwest Washington.

I remember that storm. It blew down the fire lookout that was located on top of Mt. Pleasant.

All of which pales in comparison to the worst weather disaster to hit the Olympic Peninsula in historic times, the “Big Blow” of Jan. 21, 1921.

The storm came ashore at about 9 a.m. near the mouth of the Columbia River. The North Head lighthouse recorded gusts estimated at 150 mph before the anemometer was blown away.

The storm headed north, where an estimated 2.5 million trees, or almost half of the trees on the southwest side of the Olympics, were blown over in a path of destruction said to be eight times larger than the damage caused by the eruption of Mt. St. Helens.

Sixteen homes were destroyed in La Push. The lighthouse keeper’s bull was blown off Tatoosh Island. A herd of 200 elk was killed near Forks, along with hundreds of farm animals. Only one person was killed. He was scalded to death at a mill in Aberdeen when a smokestack fell on top of him.

The scariest description of the ’21 Blow occurs in Elizabeth Huelsdonk Fletcher’s book, “The Iron Man of the Hoh,” where she relates her father, John Huelsdonk, was upriver tending his trapline when the storm hit just before dark.

The Iron Man said he would stand under a tree until he felt the roots move, then find another tree to stand under.

With the ground-shaking impact of big timber hitting the ground and the roar of the wind, it must have been a terrifying night to endure.

Huelsdonk provided for his family by varmint hunting and trapping in winter in the mountains, so he must have been well acquainted with surviving big winds in big timber.

It’s not a question of if the next big wind will hit the Peninsula.

It’s only a matter of time.

When it does, please remember — don’t fire up your barbecue or generator indoors.


Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing and rafting guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via [email protected].

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