Will windstorm history repeat this weekend in Seattle?
It’s the 54th anniversary of the infamous Oct. 12, 1962 “Columbus Day Storm” that devastated much of the Pacific Northwest with high winds and heavy rain.
“The Columbus Day Storm is the strongest non-tropical windstorm ever to hit the Lower 48 in American history,” said Buehner on Tuesday, recalling how as a 6-year old child in Portland, he saw more than 100 downed trees on his street in the West Hills neighborhood.
“I remember at about 8 o’clock that evening the storm had gone through,” Buehner said. “Out my window, I could see all the radio and TV towers on the West Hills, you know, with the blinking red lights? They were all gone.”
The Columbus Day Storm killed 46 people and did millions of dollars of damage from Northern California to British Columbia, and left hundreds of thousands of homes without electricity for days and even weeks. It also inspired the young Ted Buehner to study meteorology.
“That got me interested in the field of weather and drove me through my schooling — elementary, junior high and high school, and college, and where I am today,” Buehner said. “And I’ve been living the dream ever since.”
“The dream” is working for the National Weather Service in Seattle, something Buehner has done since 1977. That’s why in addition to observing the anniversary of the Columbus Day Storm, he’s also taking the opportunity to sound the warning about a weather system developing out in the Pacific Ocean and aimed at the Pacific Northwest.
“Our last really big windstorm was the Hanukkah Eve windstorm of December 2006. If you ranked it from zero to 10, the Columbus Day Storm as a 10, the Hanukkah Eve was a 6,” Buehner said. “Some of our guidance [for this weekend’s forecast] is pointing toward something that might be at least Hanukkah Eve windstorm-ish.”
Buehner says the weather in western Washington will begin to change Wednesday evening, with a wet and windy system that he calls a “dress rehearsal” for the weekend storm. Based on forecast models, Buehner says, the stronger storm is likely to arrive during the day Saturday and into Saturday evening.
Like most meteorologists, Buehner loves big storms and loves talking about them with the media, but his focus is mostly about encouraging people to be ready for the storm and its aftermath.
“We’re really trying to get people to prepare now with regards to the possibility of some very strong winds, some heavy rain, possible flooding and high surf along the coast. By preparing, I’m talking about getting ready for any potential power outages you may have. In addition to that, do things around the house,” Buehner said. “I, myself, am gonna go home this afternoon and finally finish putting all my patio furniture away.”
Buehner recommends the Take Winter By Storm website for weather prep tips.
While this weekend’s big blow may do some damage, storms of the intensity of what happened in 1962 are extremely rare, Buehner says. It all began with the remnants of Typhoon Freda in the Western Pacific.
“Keep in mind we [often] have this kind of weather pattern,” Buehner said, with remnants of tropical storms making their way out to the middle of the Pacific Ocean and moderately affecting weather conditions here.
“But what was unique about the Columbus Day Storm was this particular storm center literally came right up the coastline instead of being hundreds of miles offshore,” Buehner said. “[The 1962] storm was hugging the coast line. That was very unique, and why it made it so significant and such a powerful and destructive storm.”
“Winds along the coast with the Columbus Day Storm were in excess of 150 miles an hour,” Buehner said. “And in the interior valleys from Eugene to Bellingham, they were in excess of 100 miles per hour.”
Buehner says that wind speeds were so high, wind gauges at several weather stations quit working when their towers blew over or the bearings in the spinning cups simply failed.
Wind speeds are not expected to be that high here on Saturday, even though the storm Buehner is expecting is fueled by the remnants of Typhoon Songda.
The fact that the 1962 storm took place on Oct. 12 – Columbus Day — made that storm easy to name, especially since storm-naming in the Pacific Northwest isn’t carefully managed the way tropical storm naming is in the southern United States. Ten years ago, it took a months’ long public contest to choose a name for the 2006 Hanukkah Eve windstorm.
It remains to be seen whether or not this weekend’s storm will be worthy of a name, and most people are probably hoping it won’t. If it does “earn” a name, what does Ted Buehner think the storm should be called?
“That’s a really good question,“ Buehner said.
Fortunately for us, he’s too busy keeping an eye on the weather maps and spreading the word to worry about a superfluous detail like that.
For the latest weather forecast and more information on this weekend’s storm, visit NOAA Seattle’s website.