Jack Capell was worried, and more than a little unhappy. Earlier he had forecast that a very large storm was about to strike Oregon, but he did so largely on a hunch. He went outside, walked from the Weather Service building to his car, and stood there for a moment in the bright sunshine of a late October afternoon. The air was still. Capell fumed. Then he got in his car and drove toward town, wondering how he would live this down. Where was that storm? Were those high wind reports erroneous? Or was he just a bad forecaster?
Several days earlier, a large typhoon known as Freda had moved northeastward from the Philippines into the cool waters of the North Pacific. Rather than dying, as many tropical storms do when they reach cool water, the storm metamorphosed into a strong “mid-latitude cyclonic storm” (the kind that hit Oregon all winter) and moved eastward across the Pacific. As it neared California, on October 11, the storm nearly stopped moving, intensified, and began to slowly move northward just off the coast. As it moved, it wreaked havoc from northern California to British Columbia, with most of the damage coming on October 12.
The year was 1962. The New York Yankees and San Francisco Giants were in the midst of the World Series. The big storm, still bearing lots of subtropical moisture, dumped large amounts of rain on much of California. Three consecutive rainouts occurred, making the 1962 World Series the longest since 1911 (13 days).
In Oregon and Washington, however, the storm was remarkable for winds. It remains the windiest storm in history throughout much of Oregon. At Mt. Hebo in the Coast Range west of Salem, measured wind speeds reached 131 mph before the anemometer was destroyed by the winds. On the Morrison Street bridge in Portland, winds gusted to 116 mph (in Naselle, Washington they reached 160 mph). Corvallis Airport reported a gust of 127 mph. Trees, houses, and power lines were destroyed throughout the state; in some cases residents were without power for 2 to 3 weeks. Giant towers holding the main power
lines into Portland (over 500 feet high) were knocked down. The Red Cross estimated that 84 homes were completely destroyed, 5000 severely damaged, and 50,000 moderately damaged. 38 people died in Oregon alone, and damages were estimated at $200 million (over $800 million in today’s dollars).
Agriculture took a devastating blow as an entire fruit and nut orchards were
destroyed. Scores of livestock were killed as barns collapsed or trees were blown over on the animals. Many of the downed trees were deciduous; it was still early enough in the season that most trees still had their leaves, so they had much more “windage” as the high winds struck. Photos of the MU quad (courtesy the OSU Archives) show large trees
down all over. Below is the Van Buren Bridge after a tree crashed through it. In addition, a 1962 Dodge Dart lies shattered, a large tree resting on its smashed hood.
So Jack Capell was right all along. The “Columbus Day Storm” stands as the most significant storm of the last 100 years. But as Jack told me several years ago, “I was pretty gloomy when I got in my car to drive back to downtown Portland from the Weather Service office at the airport. But as I neared town, I saw a huge, black cloud, flags flapping wildly in the wind, and dust blowing. Debris started to pelt my car. But I rejoiced, because I hadn’t blown the prediction after all.”
Jack, I know just what you mean. We weather guys get so much grief for a bad forecast that we can’t help but rejoice when we get one right – especially if it’s truly extreme like this one was!