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Is a new Columbus Day Storm on the horizon?

MyView • Fifty years later, hurricane's fury still whips up fears, memories


by: COURTESY OF OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY ARCHIVES - Workers examined the Van Buren Street Bridge in Corvallis after it was heavily damaged in the Oct. 12, 1962, Columbus Day Storm. The storm is a touchstone in Oregon's history.The Columbus Day Storm is the benchmark to which all other Pacific Northwest storms are compared.

This violent and deadly storm struck during the late afternoon of Friday, Oct. 12, 1962, with winds gusting as high as 130 mph in the Willamette Valley and 170 mph along the Oregon Coast. Nearly 50 people perished in the storm.

The damage and destruction still perplexes the mind some 50 years later. It was not only the storm of the decade but of the century for the Pacific Northwest. There has yet to be another tempest that even comes close. To this day, the storm can best be summarized with words such as “frightening” and “amazing,” along with technical meteorological terms such as “bomb” and “deep cyclogenesis.”

The storm began in the western Pacific, with the remnants of Typhoon Frieda continuing eastward toward the West Coast in the days leading up to Oct. 12.

Keep in mind that in 1962 there were no weather satellites. Thus, weather forecasters relied heavily on offshore ship reports, limited first-generation weather buoys and land observations along the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington to warn of incoming storms that could pose a significant threat.

Jack Capell knew

On Friday morning, the storm was racing along a fast jet stream aimed at Northern California. As the storm dug deep into a trough of low pressure near the coast, it was hurled around the base of the trough and directly north into the Oregon and Washington coastlines.

At this point, the storm went through a technical phase known as “rapid cyclogenesis” as it began its drive directly northward along the coast. At one point the storm’s center was within 75 miles of the coast as it passed Astoria.

At the very moment the storm passed the same latitude as Portland, an immense burst of wind followed the front. The late KGW weatherman Jack Capell knew something was about to happen. Barometers across the Pacific Northwest were falling faster than they had in years and he was busy warning residents that the storm was coming.

As the front passed and the storm’s center was directly west of Portland, it began unleashing its fury on the region. It became even more destructive because both upper and lower level winds came directly from the south, acting to boost the wind from Medford through the Willamette Valley and into Southwest Washington.

Imagine a funnel, with the Coast Range and the Cascades serving as the sides of the funnel; those geographical features served to increase wind speeds across Western Oregon.

A hurricane

For those who were here for the Columbus Day Storm, it will forever be etched in their minds. At about 5 p.m. the storm struck Portland, tearing off roofs, toppling trees and destroying buildings with the fury of a near Category 3 hurricane.

The city was plunged into darkness as trees still harboring their summer leaves added additional drag. As the storm raced north along the coast, winds spread into Washington state. The storm raged into early Saturday morning before the pressure gradient finally relented.

When it passed, the storm caused nearly $250 million in damage (in 1962 dollars) and felled an amazing 10 billion board feet of timber.

The peak wind gusts that struck Oregon and Southwest Washington are simply staggering and have remained untouched since: Newport, 138 mph; Corvallis, 127 mph; the Morrison Street Bridge in downtown Portland, 116 mph; Troutdale, 106 mph; Portland Airport, 104 mph; Astoria, 96 mph; Vancouver, Wash., 92 mph; Salem, 90 mph; and Eugene 86, mph.

It took weeks for residents of the Pacific Northwest to struggle with removing trees from homes, restoring electricity and water, and all the other tasks necessary to get back to normal, everyday life.

Like other life-changing events such as World War II and the assassination of President Kennedy, the number of area residents who vividly remember the storm continues to wane. And like these kinds of events, we shouldn’t let them be forgotten.

Event at OMSI

To this day, I find myself mystified by the amazing meteorological ingredients that came together so perfectly to create such a hybrid storm. This begs the question, “Could it happen again?”

This is precisely the question the Oregon chapter of the American Meteorological Society will explore at 10 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 13, at OMSI. This free Oregon AMS event will offer a look deep inside the storm as seen through the eyes of the public and the meteorologists who tracked it. Rare audio and video recordings from the night of the storm featuring Capell and those who were present when a 600-foot KGW transmitter tower fell will be shown.

Several survivor stories and plenty of photographs, some rarely been seen publicly, will be on display.

Everyone is encouraged to attend this event, especially those who may have a harrowing personal story to share or memorabilia item to display.

For details on this meeting, please go to the website ametsoc.org/chapters/oregon.

Steve Pierce is president of the Oregon American Meteorological Society.