History of big windstorms in the Northwest

Oct 14, 2016, 10:46 PM | Updated: Oct 16, 2016, 11:14 pm
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A Washington ferry makes its way across Puget Sound Friday morning during strong winds that knocked out power to thousands. This weekend's storm is just the latest in a long list of big windstorms. (WSF)

It is safe to assume that there has not been a hurricane or cyclone on the Sound or west of the Cascade mountains for ages, if ever.

So wrote Seattle pioneer Arthur Armstrong Denny in his 1908 memoir, “Pioneer Days on Puget Sound.”

Denny headed west from Illinois in April 1851. He arrived during a November rainstorm at what’s now Seattle later that year, and witnessed much of the city’s growth, and much of the region’s weather, over the next several decades.

In his book, Denny also provides what might be the first account of a windstorm in Seattle:

The heaviest wind storm since the settlement of the country was on the night of November 16, 1875. This was simply a strong gale which threw down considerable timber and overturned light structures, such as sheds and out buildings.

Since it’s obvious that this week’s big windstorms are nothing new in the Pacific Northwest, here’s a quick overview of some other big windstorms going back to the late 19th century.

The Great Gale of January 9, 1880
In 1924, historian and judge Cornelius H. Hanford wrote:

The second week of January, 1880, gave a surprise in the form of a freak snow storm. Elisha P. Ferry, governor of Washington Territory, had just previously forwarded to the Department of the Interior at Washington, D.C., his annual report in which he extolled the mildness of the Puget Sound climate, especially remarking upon the infrequency of snow in the winter seasons.

This “freak snow storm” was preceded by a huge windstorm that hit Oregon and southwest Washington the hardest, with winds estimated at 138 mph along the Oregon Coast. The storm generally left Seattle untouched (other than by depositing two feet of snow, on top of several feet already on the ground).

Windstorm of December 3, 1901
During this long-ago storm, winds were estimated at 115 mph along the Oregon and Washington Coasts.

Great Olympic Blowdown of January 29, 1921
This winter windstorm included sustained winds of 113 mph with gusts to 150 mph at North Head, Washington near Cape Disappointment. Gusts in Seattle were estimated around 60 mph. The storm blew down thousands of board feet of timber throughout the region. National Weather Service meteorologist Ted Buehner says evidence of the “blowdown” is visible just a short hike from Lake Quinault Lodge on the Olympic Peninsula.

Windstorm of October 21, 1934
The United States was deep in the Great Depression when this storm struck 82 years ago. There were reports of 59 mph gusts in downtown Seattle; 70 mph gusts at Boeing Field; and 90 mph on the Washington coast. Newspaper headlines called it “THE WORST GALE IN HISTORY,” and reported at least 17 had died, including five fisherman who went down in the purse seiner Agnes off of Port Townsend. Other deaths were caused by falling trees, downed electrical wires, and the collapse of a wall in a downtown Seattle hotel. Dozens of passengers on the famous steamer Virginia V escaped injury when that vessel struck the dock at Ollala during the storm.

The Intense Cyclone of November 3, 1958
The wind gusted to an unbelievable 161 mph at an exposed Cold War radar site atop Naselle Ridge near the mouth of the Columbia River, and gusted to 59 mph at Sea-Tac Airport. Damage during “The Intense Cyclone” included downed trees and power lines. A farmer died near Roy in Pierce County, and an 18-year old student at what was then Pacific Lutheran College was killed when a branch knocked a power line down onto her outside the Student Union Building.

Columbus Day Storm of October 12, 1962
The Pacific Northwest’s most infamous storm did about $2 billion in damage (in 2016 dollars) from Northern California to British Columbia, and 46 people were killed. Like the storm expected Saturday evening, the Columbus Day Storm had roots in a typhoon in the Western Pacific, with a low-pressure cell tracking close to the coast.

Hood Canal Bridge Storm of February 13, 1979
Winds gusted to 60 mph at Sea-Tac Airport and damaged the original 1963 Evergreen Point Floating Bridge, but the brunt of this storm hit Kitsap County, with wind gusts higher than 70 mph that sunk the west half of the Hood Canal Floating Bridge. One man died when a tree fell on his vehicle near Cosmopolis in Grays Harbor County. The aftermath wreaked havoc for travelers and commerce, and ferry service across Hood Canal was started up again until the bridge could be replaced.

Friday the 13th and Sunday the 15th Double Storms of November 1981
At least two storms (beginning on Friday the 13th) were responsible for a total of 12 deaths in Oregon and Washington, including a man on Maury Island electrocuted during the first storm by a downed power line. More than 400,000 were without power along the I-5 corridor in Western Washington in the wake of the storms. Winds gusted over 70 mph, shutting down both the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge. Another casualty of the storm was a historic round barn north of the town of Skamokawa on the lower Columbia River. On Monday, November 16, with the blustery weather continuing outside, the Seahawks beat the San Diego Chargers inside the Kingdome on Monday Night Football, 44-23.

Thanksgiving Day Storm of November 24, 1983
Many people still remember this poorly-timed storm that knocked out electricity to 270,000 homes around Puget Sound around midday on Thanksgiving 1983, and ruined countless turkey dinners. No injuries or deaths were reported.

Inauguration Day Storm of January 20, 1993
The era of President William Jefferson Clinton was ushered into Washington with this brutal storm that hit around mid-morning on Inauguration Day with 88 mph gusts. The Evergreen Point Floating Bridge was closed, and cars “trapped” on the span had to do U-turns to get off the bridge. One made died from a fallen tree in Maple Valley, and no one was injured when a taxiing floatplane flipped on Lake Washington. Eastside suburbs were hit particularly hard by long-lasting power outages, and a cold snap after the windstorm meant days of shivering in the dark for thousands.

Sinatra Day Storm of December 12, 1995
Winds gusted to 119 mph at the Sea Lion Caves on the Oregon Coast, and winds around Puget Sound hit the 50 and 60 mph range. The “Sinatra Day Storm” name (which was suggested by Gregg Hersholt because December 12, 1995 was Frank Sinatra’s 80th birthday), was probably only used by KIRO Radio.

Hanukkah Eve Storm of December 14, 2006
The Hanukkah Eve Storm brought heavy rain and devastating winds to Western Washington, killing a woman in a basement flood in Seattle, and leading to the deaths of 14 people from carbon monoxide poisoning trying to keep warm in the aftermath.

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History of big windstorms in the Northwest