The Columbus Day Storm

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?

Maximum wind giusts, Columbus Day Storm (Wolf Read)

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

Oregon State University campus

Oregon State University campus

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

MU Quad, OSU Campus

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.

(Left) The Van Buren bridge, Corvallis; (Right) A 1962 Dodge Dart on the OSU campus

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!

Damage at North Willamette Experiment Station, Aurora, OR

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10 Responses to The Columbus Day Storm

  1. Great story!

    Being 22, us young’ ems need stories like this to give us insight on how powerful of a storm that actually was. Just looking at the pictures, im amazed at all that damage. People think we don’t get hurricanes…we’ll they’re sorta right, they call them Extra Tropical Mid-Lattitude Cyclones here. The Pacific Northwest is home to some of the most unique weather in the world. Again, great read and thank you for this blog!

    –Grant

    • Grant, I was a teenager but lived in California, where it was a big rain storm. Four consecutive days saw rainouts in the 1962 World Series in San Francisco. As a baseball fan (and Yankee fan, and the Yankees were playing the Giants) I got very impatient with all the rain. In Oregon, it wasn’t that wet — just windy!

  2. Jeremy says:

    Every Thanksgiving and Christmas we would make the trek to Grandma and Grandpa’s house on the Yaquina bay. After us kids were put to bed we’d listen as our parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents talked about the old days. On more than one occasion they recounted their experiences of the October 12th storm. The stories were fascinating.
    My first real encounter with a windstorm was November 1981. I was at my grandparents place between Newport and Toledo. I remember the sound of the wind and the big picture windows bowing in and out.
    December 3rd 2007 I threw the chainsaw in the back of the truck and headed to my favorite wind spot, Cape Foul Weather. I was not disappointed. We barely made it back to Salem.

  3. Boydo3 500' North Albany says:

    I was ten years old. My friend’s mom took us downtown Portland to see 101 Dalmations . The city was roaring with wind and explosions. The power went out at the Paramount theatre and we started to head for home. Took two hours to go about 6 miles. Unbelievable destruction all the way home. Power lines down everywhere, sparking in the streets. Trees on houses. Roofs missing. Houses without windows. It was truly a scene of destruction. The next morning the sun was out, the birds were singing and the neighborhood was destroyed! BUT! The grocery stores were giving away ice cream because they had no power for the freezers!

  4. Dan says:

    I vividly remember the Columbus Day Storm even though I was only five years old at the time. As the winds intensified, my mom brought us down into the basement in our NE Portland home. There we huddled together for hours with just candles and flashlights. My dad was a Portland Police Officer and needless to say was busy at work.

    The next day we had Douglas fir branches everywhere in our backyard and over at Hancock Park. I don’t recall seeing the news of the event on TV back then, but I do remember the photographs that appeared in the newspaper, including the battered Multnomah Stadium.

    The Columbus Day Storm is still the granddaddy of them all!

  5. terri says:

    my aunt and uncle were killed by a fallen tree on their car, leaving five children. during the columbus day storm

  6. Bev Wood says:

    I lived in Salem when this strom hit. I remember the massive tree roots that was everywhere. We lived down the street from the capitol building. We had a tree go through the roof of the second story of our house, the trees in the front of the house were uprooted. Best part we didnt have to go to school. Just kidding.

    • Thanks for the stories. For me, the storm was a huge rain storm —
      I lived in California and waited through 4 days of rain while the World
      Series (in San Francisco) was rained out. Little did I know how bad
      it was in the Northwest!

  7. Mike R says:

    I was in the second grade. Class was let out a hour early and we were told to go straight home. I remember seeing parts of houses and you name it tumbling down the street. Then it got dark and the wind roared and screamed. I remember a bit of a calm period in the middle of it all and then the winds came back. Our street was lined with Walnut trees of which three or four survived. Our house had only minor damages but I remember seeing many houses with the front porch ripped off, and 1 house 1/2 mile away blown off it’s foundation. To this day I have never heard a repeat of the sound the wind made that day on October 12, 1962 Location: Lebanon, Oregon
    MIKE

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