OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Fifty years later: Legacy of Columbus Day storm still stands

10/02/2012

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Nearly half a century after it ripped through the Pacific Northwest, people still talk about the Columbus Day storm of 1962 – and with good reason.

With wind gusts measured at 145 miles per hour – and peak velocity that may have reached as high as 175 mph, the storm demolished trees, homes and lives. As many as 46 deaths were attributed to the storm, and hundreds of Oregonians were injured, making it the second deadliest weather event in the state’s history.

Some people have called it the perfect storm, but in truth, it was three separate storms, says Kathie Dello, deputy director of the Oregon Climate Service at Oregon State University.

“The Columbus Day storm has frequently been labeled as a typhoon, but that is somewhat erroneous,” Dello said. “It was the remnant of a typhoon that became extratropical and hit the West Coast in three waves, but they get lumped together in people’s minds as one event.”

Dello said three key things happened to create the monstrous weather event that became known as the Columbus Day storm. Remnants of Typhoon Freda, which formed in early October, regained intensity after it moved into an area where cool air from the Gulf of Alaska met warm, moist tropical air. The newly energized system moved up the coast and a low pressure system developed intensively. Finally, the combination of the west-to-east pressure gradient with the northward path of the storm funneled the system between the Coast Range and the Cascades – right up the Willamette Valley.

“If the winds had come from the west, the pressure gradient would have changed and the damage would not have been nearly as severe,” said Dello, who is in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. “We have extratropical storms visit us frequently. But the intensity of the low pressure, combined with the direction of the storm, and our topography made this one historic.”

What also made the Columbus Day storm unusual, Dello said, was that it took place in October – well before the winter storm season.

“It is the only major windstorm on record in the Pacific Northwest for October,” she said.

During the storm, the pressure level dropped to at least 960 millibars, Dello said, which is equivalent to a Category 3 hurricane. The contrast with the high pressure system to the north intensified the storm, which swept up the Willamette Valley leaving a swath of destruction.

The manually operated wind gauge in Corvallis recorded a gust of 127 mph, before the operator fled, leaving a note behind that merely stated, “abandoned station.” Sustained winds, of a minute or longer in duration, reached as high as 69 mph.

Cape Blanco, regarded as perhaps the windiest spot along the coast, recorded the highest official gust – 145 mph. But the entire western portion of the state was battered, Dello said, by amazingly strong gusts and sustained periods of high winds. Portland recorded a gust of 116 mph near the Morrison Street Bridge. Mount Hebo Air Force Station recorded a gust of 130 mph.

The storm reached into Washington, as well, before dissipating, battering Olympia (78 mph); McChord Air Force Base (88 mph); Renton, (100 mph); and Bellingham (98 mph).

As the storm began, it dumped heavy rain on California, forcing the postponement of a World Series game between the San Francisco Giants and the New York Yankees. As it moved into Oregon, the rain lessened but the winds intensified with the pressure change.

Some reports say the storm damaged as many trees in Oregon and Washington as the combined annual timber harvest of both states. Power was not only knocked out throughout western Oregon, but entire distribution systems were destroyed and some communities went weeks without electricity. The economic impact just in Oregon was an estimated $200 million at the time, which is equal to somewhere in the vicinity of $1.4 billion in today’s dollars, according to OSU political scientist Robert Sahr, who studies inflation conversion.

Many homes were destroyed and it was considered the worst natural disaster in the country in 1962. The only weather-related event in Oregon history that was worse, Dello said, was the Heppner Flood in 1903, which resulted in 247 fatalities.

“The Heppner Flood was different in that it was a flash flood from intense thunderstorms that in a period of minutes overwhelmed Willow Creek and its tributaries,” Dello said. “It is one of the state’s few weather disasters east of the Cascades.”

Fifty years after the Columbus Day storm, weather analysts still debate whether this is a once a century event, or something even more unusual. Dello says she often is asked if such a storm could happen again.

“It took a combination of events to create the Columbus Day storm,” Dello said, “and the cumulative effect of those events was enormous. But none of the individual factors was all that unusual, so yes, it could very well happen again. And if it does, the damage could be even more devastating because there are so many more people and houses than in 1962.

“In Oregon, we are perhaps more vulnerable to the damage because epic storms happen so rarely,” Dello pointed out. “It’s hard to prepare for a once-in-a century storm.”

Dello frequently provides weather facts and historical data via Twitter at: www.twitter.com/orclimatesvc.