Memories of devastating 1962 Columbus Day storm run deep through Pacific Northwest

By Stacia Glenn, The (Tacoma) News TribuneOctober 12, 2012 

TACOMA, Wash. -- The hurricane-force winds of the 1962 Columbus Day Storm still blow memories through the minds of those who lived through the most powerful windstorm ever recorded in the lower 48 states and certainly the largest in the Pacific Northwest.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Big Blow, which killed 46 people, caused millions in damage and cut a devastating swath from the San Francisco Bay area to Canada with gales gusting as high as 179 miles per hour.

"It is the windstorm that all other windstorms are measured against," said Ted Buehner, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Seattle. "There's been a lot of windstorms over the years but the grandaddy of storms was clearly the Columbus Day Storm."

The Oct. 12, 1962, storm was a unique confluence of weather conditions that forecasters say couldn't happen for another 100, possibly 1,000, years.

The morning before the storm struck, a U.S. Navy ship hundreds of miles off the Northern California coast reported an unthinkably sharp drop in barometer pressure - .66 inches in three hours - and a wind gust topping 90 mph.

Meteorologists back then didn't have weather satellites, weather buoys or high-tech computers that could run models analyzing weather systems. The Weather Service in Portland eventually issued its highest wind warning at that time, warning of gusts 80 to 90 mph. The Seattle office followed suit.

A meteorological bomb was brewing.

It had started a week earlier where Typhoon Freda was building in the tropical waters of the Pacific Ocean and drew its strength from the large temperature differences between Frieda and cold air in the Gulf of Alaska.

The storm gathered force as it was squeezed between the Cascades and the Coast Range, producing howling winds of 179 mph at Cape Blanco; 116 mph in Portland; 100 mph in Renton; 88 mph in Tacoma; and 78 mph in Olympia.

Annette Munoz, then 13, stared at the storm through the big picture window in her Tacoma house until her mother ordered her to stand back for fear of the glass shattering as it rattled and shook.

In an interview this week, she recalled the street in front of their home "turned into a raging river as monsoon rain pelted down driven by high winds. Tall trees across the street bent and twisted in the howling gale and the sky was dark gray and evil."

Alice Wilcoxson determinedly drove her tiny 1959 Renault Dauphine to Madigan Army Medical Center. She was going to visit her teenage son, who remained unconscious after a motorcycle accident. Being blown across all four lanes didn't deter her.

"A mother's love for her son has no limits, not even the Columbus Day Storm," her son, 69-year-old Russ Wilcoxson, said this week.

The Seattle World's Fair, which was in its last week, closed its doors early as the SpaceNeedle swayed, windows buckled and a loud-speaker blared warnings of 80 mph winds.

State ferries halted, stranding passengers for four hours. Swells 10 feet high crashed down on shoreline properties on Vashon Island. Families hovered inside, trying to keep warm as power went out in more than 1 million homes (and stayed out for weeks).

The storm hit this area about 7 p.m. It uprooted the landmark George Washington elm -- grown from a cutting from the original George Washington tree - on the Capitol grounds.

It toppled more than 200 trees in Tacoma and sent debris flying through the air. Porches were ripped off houses and downed power lines sent sparks shooting.

Dozens of high school football games were canceled.

Steven Wilkerson was a kicker on Peninsula High School's team and was trying to start the game, but the wind kept knocking the ball off the tee. Just as he finally kicked the ball, the field lights went out and plunged the stadium into darkness.

"Time briefly stood still while the two teams were looking up in a very dark sky trying to find the football," Wilkerson said. "Immediately the refs started blowing their whistles to stop play" and everybody raced for their cars.

By the time the tempest was done, 317 people in Washington and Oregon had sought help at hospitals. Among them was 7-year-old Charley Brammer, who was attacked outside his Spanaway home by an escaped lioness. Killed were 46 people, including a Milton man who touched a live wire from a downed power line.

More than 15 billion board feet of timber were blown down from Northern California to western Montana. That's enough wood to replace 300,000 homes and three times greater than the number of trees knocked over in the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens.

It allowed new markets to open in Japan as the pressure to move the timber increased.

"It was the most powerful and destructive storm to strike the Northwest since the arrival of European settlers," said University of Washington meteorologist Cliff Mass.

Weather experts say a storm of that day happening today could have a much greater impact because infrastructure has greatly expanded and the population has grown. Back then, Western Washington had 2.1 million residents; today, there are 5.2 million.

"We want people to think about preparedness before the storm hits," Buehner said. "Don't think about it when the snow falls, when the waters rise, when the wind blows."

* stacia.glenn@ thenewstribune.com (http://thenewstribune.com)

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