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The Turkey Day Storm of 1983 that ruined countless dinners

Sometimes, it can almost seem that holidays actually attract big storms to the Pacific Northwest, whether on Hanukkah Eve in 2006 or on Columbus Day way back in 1962.

And on the list of holiday storms in the Pacific Northwest, quite a few people around here still remember the “Turkey Day Storm” of November 24, 1983. On that particular blustery Thanksgiving 35 years ago, a badly-timed windstorm wreaked havoc on electric ovens throughout Western Washington, and dashed the festive dinner plans of countless local residents.

Ted Buehner retired from the National Weather Service last year, but he’s still recognized as an articulate spokesman for Mother Nature’s more destructive atmospheric outbursts. In 1983, Buehner was driving south on I-5 near Olympia, on the way to visit family in Portland, when the storm hit.

“We had a windstorm come through … and it knocked down a lot of trees and knocked out power to a pretty widespread part of Western Washington,” Buehner said earlier this week near his home north of Seattle.

“Traffic signals were out, trees were down, and all those kinds of things, and I’m listening on the radio while trying to get through all this to get down to the Rose City,” he said.

But if the Turkey Day Storm is remembered at all three and a half decades later, it’s not necessarily because of its intensity, Buehner says.

“It really wasn’t that strong of a wind storm,” Buehner said. “It was roughly 35 to 40 miles per hour sustained, with gusts around 55 and 60, which is technically the low-end of a High Wind Warning, which is what was in place that day.”

Buehner says a couple of things conspired to make the Turkey Day Storm memorable.

“I think part of it was just that we hadn’t had a wind event for a couple years at that point, and we had a lot of leaves still on the trees at that time, and as a result, the leaves on the trees acted like a sail — caught the wind, and we ended up with a lot more limbs and/or trees down,” he said.

The second factor was when the storm hit. With high winds striking the populated areas around Puget Sound in the morning and many power failures coming around midday, it was the worst possible timing for what became countless half-cooked turkeys and dashed dinner plans.

Newspaper accounts from 1983 report a peak of as many as 270,000 customers without electricity on Thanksgiving afternoon. In the days after Thanksgiving, local health departments reported a spike in calls about what to do with foods affected by the power outages.

Thanksgiving weather 2018

While there’s no wind in the forecast this year, Buehner says November is a month worth keeping an eye on, with a long history of unsettled weather.

“November is our wettest month of the year, even though you wouldn’t know that this year. Clearly, we’re way behind normal for precipitation this month,” Buehner said. “But this tends to be our most active storm season as we kick out of October and into November, it’s our number one month for floods. We’ve had a number of windstorm events during this time of year.”

November can also bring that rare mix of moisture and freezing temperatures, Buehner says.

“We’ve also had some snow events,” Buehner said. “You might remember November of 1985. We had a nice cold weather outbreak and snow before Thanksgiving that year. I remember I had eight inches in my backyard on Thanksgiving Day.”

And, as Ted Buehner points out, it’s not just wind or the occasional snow storm that usually makes November memorable. It’s the rain. And the rain. And more rain.

“There were the big floods of 1986, [more floods] again in November of 1990, and then finally November 1995,” Buehner said. “That was a huge flood in the Pacific Northwest.”

What to do with all that turkey

Though it looks like Thanksgiving will be storm-free this year. What should you do if the power does go out during some yet-to-be infamous “Turkey Day Storm” sequel in the years ahead, or if we get a Christmas blizzard later this year?

Sue Smith has worked for the Butterball Turkey Talk Line for 19 years. She says you could always move a half-cooked turkey to an outdoor barbecue grill if your indoor oven stopped working.

If you do have to switch, Smith says, it’s critical to make sure that the turkey has been thoroughly cooked in order to kill any bacteria.

“What is really important on that day is your best friend – your meat thermometer,” Smith said. “You really need to have one on hand so you know when your turkey is done, and to make sure it does get up to appropriate temperatures quick enough. So, 180 degrees Fahrenheit in the thigh, 170 degrees Fahrenheit in the breast.”

Ted Buehner will be cooking at home for family this year. Though he is retired from the National Weather Service, he remains active with various emergency management and disaster preparedness projects, and is still passionate about Northwest weather.

While the turkey is cooking at the Buehner home, does Ted have a way to keep his eye on the sky, maybe his own home weather station, with a wind gauge to measure those record gusts?

“I don’t, and the reason for that is because I have a lot of trees around me, and I’ve been there when the wind is blowing like crazy up there in the canopy, but down on the ground it’s a whisper,” Buehner said.

Surely, though, this veteran meteorologist must have an elegant barometer on the mantle that he taps each night and first thing every morning?

Wrong again.

“You might say my left knee injury from high school football might be my barometer,” he said.

Editor’s Note: Special thanks to Casey McNerthney with KIRO TV for his assistance finding vintage video.

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