On October 12, 1962, Columbus Day, a windstorm ravages the Puget Sound region in what the National Weather service later designates as Washington's worst weather disaster of the twentieth century. More than 50 people are killed between Vancouver B.C. and San Francisco, nine in Washington.
The 1962 Columbus Day storm began its path as Typhoon Freda, which formed in late September in the South Pacific and peaked on October 5. As it traveled to the Northeast, it weakened into an extratropical storm near the Aleutian Islands, but then regenerated and picked up speed as it veered south towards the Western coast of the United States. No other climatological event of this size and intensity had ever occurred before in the written history of the Pacific Northwest, and has not since.
The storm hit landfall in northern California, and began pounding Crescent City at 1:00 p.m. Gusts of up to 63 miles an hour battered the state as far south as San Francisco, postponing the sixth game of baseball's World Series at Candlestick Park. Power was knocked out along the entire northern coast of the state, as even giant redwood trees toppled from the forces of the winds. Before leaving the state, the storm killed 17 people.
Oregon is Hit Hard
In Oregon things got worse. Gusts at Capo Blanco were clocked at close to 150 miles per hour, causing two section of Pacific High School to be torn away in nearby Port Orford. At Coos Bay, a 300-foot-tall electrical tower was torn from its stanchions, sending a key 115,000 voltage line into the bay. Farther inland, telephone lines were cut off in Grants Pass, and by nightfall long distance lines were downed throughout the whole western half of the state.
Winds along the central Oregon coast reached speeds of up to 140 miles per hour. Corvalis saw speeds only slightly lower, but measurements stopped there when the anemometer broke and the weather station began to tear apart. By the time the storm hit Portland, gusts wear still roaring at over 120 miles per hour, toppling trees, power and telephone lines. In Portland, the storm blew windows out of buildings and tore the roofs off of homes. Wood, glass, and other chunks of debris were flying everywhere.
The storm hit Portland at the end of the work day. Dangerous road conditions and the loss of power left many office workers trapped downtown. Local hotels were already at full capacity for an Oregon State Beavers vs. Washington Huskies football game planned for Saturday at Multnomah Stadium, and people lined the lobbies looking for rooms in which to wait out the storm. Many did not know the full extent of the damages because most of the local TV and radio stations were knocked out of commission.
On the Portland waterfront, the 565-foot cargo ship Washington tore loose from its moorings and drifted out into the harbor until its crew was able to drop two anchors. A 350-foot LST (a flat-bottomed vessel) broke free and sailed downriver until it got hung up on the Hawthorne Bridge. On the Columbia River, two electrical towers toppled, cutting power to both sides of the waterway.
At both the Portland International Airport, and Pearson Field in Vancouver, over 175 aircraft were damaged as winds plowed north into Washington. The storm was still strong, with gusts measured up to 92 miles per hour in Vancouver, and over 100 miles per hour out on the Washington coast. Four people died in Vancouver, two from falling trees, and two from heart attacks. In Longview, 16 people were injured by flying debris, and the city's civic center collapsed.
In Chehalis, the police chief was badly injured when an airplane hangar blew apart at the airport while he was securing airplanes. The storm reached Olympia shortly after 6:00 p.m. On the Capitol grounds, the historic George Washington elm -- grown from a cutting from the original George Washington tree -- uprooted and fell to the ground. Out on the coast, wind speeds were as high as 81 miles per hour, as were gusts in the cities along South Puget Sound. Two people were killed in Yelm by a falling tree and a man died in Milton when he touched a downed power line.
The Wind and the Lion
In Tacoma, power went out in virtually every part of the city, and many streets were blocked by falling trees. Near Spanaway, 7-year-old Charles Brammer was outside with his parents as they checked their roof for damage. His mother spotted an animal running in circles in a nearby field, and thought it was a dog. Without warning it ran into the yard and attacked young Charles. It was a lion.
The boy's mother immediately attacked the lion, beating it off the child with her shoe. Charles was able to escape, but while running toward the house, fell, cutting a huge gash in his forehead. The lion was one of pair owned by Uwe McCallister of Spanaway. Both had gotten loose during the storm, and were later destroyed by the police.
The center of the storm hit Seattle at around 7:00. At 7:45, the lights went out at Sea-Tac Airport. Up and down Highway 99, billboards lay broken and trees lay in the road. Ferry runs were cancelled on Puget Sound, and smaller craft raced through choppy waters looking for moorage.
Felt at the Fair
At the Seattle World's Fair, fair officials closed the Coliseum at 7:30, worried that the glass windows might blow out. Throughout the fairgrounds, loudspeakers blared that winds up to 80 miles per hour were expected shortly.
The Space Needle closed lines for the elevators, but diners in the Eye of the Needle were allowed to finish their meals. People began leaving the fairgrounds, many using umbrellas to guard their faces from flying debris. Some folks decided to stay and flocked to the Food Circus, listening to weather reports on their transistor radios.
All around the grounds, trees snapped, banners ripped, signs were torn apart. The Science Pavilion's Gothic spires swayed noticeably. By 9, the Space Needle was empty of guests, as gusts reached up to 60 miles per hour. At 9:15, officials closed the exposition, but allowed those in the Food Circus to stay put if they lived south of Seattle, where storm damage was worse. Although power outages were being reported throughout Seattle, the lights at the fair stayed on.
The Storm Moves On
Communities east of Lake Washington were plunged into darkness. In Issaquah, the roof was torn off the grandstand at the city's Memorial Stadium. The only death reported in King County occurred near North Bend when a tree fell on the truck of a Puget Sound Power and Light meter reader.
As the storm moved northward, the winds abated slightly but became no less deadly. In Snohomish County, a worker at the Sultan Dam was killed by a falling tree. Eighty mile per hour gusts were measured in Bellingham, before the storm moved into British Columbia, where it killed five people before eventually subsiding.
Clean-up from the storm started the next day. Oregon suffered the most hardships with initial damages estimates of over $150 million. More than 150 families lost their homes, and more than one billion board-feet of lumber toppled on state-owned forest lands. Fourteen people in Oregon lost their lives, mostly from falling trees and flying debris.
In Portland, maintenance workers were called in to just about every local school, many of which had severe roof or window damage. The roof was torn of Multnomah Stadium, but the Oregon vs. Washington football game was held anyway, even without the electric scoreboard.
In Washington, Pacific Northwest Bell reported 36,000 telephones out of service west of the Cascades. Train service between Seattle and Portland was delayed until fallen trees could be removed from the tracks. Electrical crews spent days restoring power to nine Western Washington counties.
The Columbus Day Storm of 1962 was the most powerful windstorm to hit the Northwest in modern times. More than 50 people were killed in storm-related events, and damage costs went into the hundreds of millions of dollars.