The Pacific Northwest has endured deadly and powerful windstorms in recent years that have knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of people at a time. But none has been worse than the Columbus Day storm that battered the West Coast 50 years ago Friday.
The forecast for October 12, 1962 called for partly cloudy with a few showers, with no mention of destructive winds. But the massive storm that blew in packed winds ranging from 50-to-150 miles per hour.
Bob Bolerjack, with Snohomish County Public Utility District has been doing some research on what happened 50 years ago, talking to people who lived through it.
“We spoke this week with one of our retirees who worked on one of the line crews back then and he said that it was an eight day ordeal for those crews. He said that they worked about three days and three nights before taking their first break and he said that he can remember the wind blowing so hard that lines were coming down faster than they could put them up again.”
Sustained winds were registered at Paine Field in Everett at 52 miles per hour with gusts to 81 miles per hour. It was a lot worse elsewhere.
National Weather Service forecaster Ted Buehner calls it the strongest non-tropical windstorm to hit the lower 48 states.
“It is the granddaddy of all windstorms, and all other windstorms are compared to that one,” said Buehner.
As a 6-year-old in Portland, Buehner remembers the lights going out.
“Everything was crashing all over the house, down on the roof, it was just a frightening event.”
He says it was that storm that sparked his interest in the weather. He says he started forecasting at age 10 and the rest, he says, “is history.”
The storm killed 46 people up and down the coast, and left a lasting memory for anybody now in their late 50s, or older.
“It injured hundreds more, blew down or destroyed thousands of buildings throughout the region. There were millions of people without power from the San Francisco bay area to southern British Columbia and [the storm] blew down 15 billion board feet of timber from the coast to as far east as Western Montana,” said Buehner.
The windstorm hit on a Friday night and lots of people remember some bizarre high school football games.
“A football game at Lake Stevens High [had] winds blowing so hard that the opening kickoff went straight up in the air and landed five yards behind the kicker. The second half kickoff went way beyond the end zone, into the trees and they had to find another ball to continue the game,” said Bolerjack.
The storm started in the San Francisco Bay area during the morning commute, it hit a little after dark in Portland, a short time later in Seattle, and then moved into British Columbia at night. Forecasters in Seattle did not warn of the historic wind storm.
“As the storm was moving its way up the coast, there were no observations,” said Buehner. “They were just disappearing off the maps. You didn’t know exactly what was happening and of course in that era there was no satellite imagery, there was no Doppler radar as we have today. There were no computer models. They were literally forecasting blind.”
Power was out for a week in some areas. Buehner says just imagine the impact of such a storm today on a society reliant on electricity, dependent on power and communication, and a population more than double what it was in 1962.