Columbus Day Storm — a Look Back

Last week we celebrated Columbus Day. The national holiday was Monday the 8th, but the traditional date is October 12. That was also the date of the deadly “Columbus Day Storm” of 1962.

Among significant wind storms in Oregon, the Columbus Day storm stands alone. Nothing before nor since has matched the intensity and damage of that storm, although a few have come close. The “storm” was actually three storms in quick succession. The first formed as a trough off the coast of Oregon on the 11th; it moved northward, and then northwestward, and began to taper off on the 12th. The second (and most destructive) storm formed from the remnants of Typhoon Freda, which moved northeastward from the Philippines, nearing the west coast early on the 12th. As it neared California, 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.

The storm reached the Oregon coast on the afternoon of the 12th. The central pressure of the storm dropped lower and lower, finally reaching 28.42 inches. Winds were strong along the coast, but even stronger inland. 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). 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. 23 people died in Oregon alone, and damages were estimated at $170 million.

Locally, something remarkable happened. Corvallis Airport collected hourly observations at that time, via a human observer (weather data are now collected on an automated station). On October 12, the wind speeds got higher and higher, finally peaking at 110 knots (127 mph) at 4 p.m. Just below that, where the next several observations would go, are several blank lines and the words “Abandoned Station” noted at 4:15. A few lines farther down, just before observations began again, the observer wrote that several readings were “unreported due to power failure and instruments demolished.”

That brings to mind several questions: (1) how much stronger did the winds get after the anemometer was destroyed? (2) where did the observers go?

To (1), my guess is that it didn’t get much stronger, since most Valley sites seemed to observe their maximum winds at about that time.

Question (2) is a different matter, and I’m clueless. I wonder if there was a cellar to hide in. Surely they wouldn’t go outside and drive away, would they?

I may never know. But I do know this: the Columbus Day Storm was by far the biggest and most significant wind storm the Northwest ever had. My friend Wolf Read, the Northwest’s premier wind expert, told it this way:

In the Willamette Valley on Columbus Day, the lowest of reported maximum wind gusts was Eugene at 86 mph (Salem was 90, Portland 116 and Troutdale 106). No other storm has had a SINGLE location that reached 86 mph in the Valley.

Finally, I’ll throw our an idea Wolf Read shared with me some years ago. Noting that the period from the late 1950s through the early 1960s had a surprisingly large number of big wind storms, Wolf discovered that those years were the heyday of above-ground nuclear tests, including a Russian detonation of 100 megatons (October 30, 1961). The “Partial Test Ban Treaty” signed in November, 1962 (a month after the Columbus Day Storm) ended the massive nuclear tests.

But Wolf’s question still haunts me: could nuclear testing have been responsible for the observed increase in wind storms at that time? We may never know.

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One Response to Columbus Day Storm — a Look Back

  1. Mike (Sweet Home ~ El. 575') says:

    I was only 3 at the time and living in Portland and don’t remember the storm. 😦

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