Columbus Day Storm of Oct. 12, 1962: Could it happen again?

PORTLAND, Ore. - The Columbus Day Storm is the benchmark storm for which all other storms are compared to across the Pacific Northwest.

This violent and deadly storm struck during the late afternoon of 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 from this storm still perplexes the mind some 50 years later.

This storm was not only the storm of the decade, but the storm of the century for the Pacific Northwest.

There has yet to be another tempest that even comes close to the furor of the Columbus Day Storm.

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 as the remnants of typhoon Frieda. It was then entrained into the westerly jet stream and was carried eastward towards the West Coast of the United States in the days leading up to Oct. 12.

Keep in mind that in 1962 there were no weather satellites. 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 to the west coast.

On the morning of Friday, Oct. 12, the storm was racing eastward along a fast jet stream aimed at northern California. As the storm dug deep into a trough of low pressure near the west coast, it was hurled around the base of the trough and directly north up the Oregon and Washington coastlines.

During this time, 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 storms center was within 75 miles of the coast as it passed Astoria.

At the very moment that the storm passed the same latitude as a given point such as Portland, an immense burst of wind followed the front that was associated with it.

The late KGW weatherman Jack Capell was on top of the storm, warning residents that the storm was coming just hours before. Barometers across the Pacific Northwest were falling faster than they had in years and he knew something was about to happen.

The Mightiest Wind Exhibit

To commemorate this powerful event in our state's history, the Oregon History Museum is opening "The Mightiest Wind," presented by Portland General Electric.  The exhibit opens Friday, Oct. 12, and will be on display through January 6, 2013.

"Countless Oregonians over the age of 50 remembers where they were when the Columbus Day Storm hit," says OHS Executive Director Kerry Tymchuk. "Though the storm caused extensive destruction to the Pacific Northwest, it also brought communities together as neighbors shared the few resources they had with each other during the repowering process."

When visitors enter the exhibit, they will be instantly transported back in time to 1962.  Inside the exhibit, large scale artifacts will recreate the destruction caused by the storm. Step into a wind machine to experience the wind gusts Oregonians would have felt 50 years ago during the storm's peak. 

The exhibit will also feature photographs, film footage, and interviews from the many Oregonians who still remember the event. 

As visitors leave the exhibit, they can learn about disaster preparedness from PGE, who was responsible for much of the repowering process in 1962.

As the front passed and the storm's center was directly west of Portland, it was ready to unleash its fury on the region. What made this event even more destructive was the fact that both upper and lower level winds were directly from the south which acted to enhance the wind in the Willamette Valley from Medford north into southwest Washington.

Imagine a funnel, with the sides of the funnel being the coast range and the Cascade mountains. These two geographical features aided in the increased wind speeds across western Oregon.

For those who recall the Columbus Day Storm, it will forever be etched in their minds.

At just after 5 p.m. the storm stuck Portland, tearing off roofs, toppling trees and destroying buildings with the fury of nearly a Category 3 hurricane.

Portland 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 from Friday night into early Saturday morning before the pressure gradient finally relented. When it was all said and done, the Columbus Day Storm caused nearly $250 million in damage (in 1962 dollars) and fell 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 for 50 years.

These include:

  • Newport 138 mph
  • Corvallis 127 mph
  • Morrison Street Bridge (downtown Portland) 116 mph
  • Troutdale 106 mph
  • Portland Airport 104 mph
  • Astoria 96 mph
  • Vancouver, Washington 92 mph
  • Salem 90 mph
  • Eugene 86 mph

It took weeks for residents of the Pacific Northwest to get back to normal everyday life as they struggled with removing trees from homes, restoring electricity, water, etc.
 
It has now been 50 years since that fateful day back in 1962.

Just like World War II and the assassination of President Kennedy, the numbers of area residents who vividly remember the storm are now slowly beginning to wane.

To this day, I find myself mystified by the amazing meteorological ingredients that came together ever so perfectly to create such a hybrid storm.

This begs the question, "Could it happen again?"

This is precisely the question that the Oregon Chapter of the American Meteorological Society (AMS) will explore on Saturday, Oct. 13, at 10 a.m. at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) in Portland.

Leading experts from across the Pacific Northwest will offer the public an event that will be remembered for years to come. Attendees are encouraged to come "relive the storm." The Oregon AMS chapter will take 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 late KGW meteorologist Jack Capell and those who were present when the 600-foot tall KGW transmitter tower fell to the ground will be aired.

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

The public is encouraged to attend this event and bring along anyone who may have a harrowing personal story to share or memorabilia item to display. This public commemoration is free and open to all ages of the general public.

OMSI's maximum capacity in their main auditorium is just 300, so please arrive early to be assured a seat.

A $300 Davis home weather station will also be raffled off at this event.