1962: Remembering The Deadly Columbus Day Storm

Oct 12, 2015

A lot of strange things happened in October 1962.

In Hollywood, Bobby "Boris" Pickett topped the charts with “Monster Mash.” In New York, James Brown recorded his incredible "Live at the Apollo" album. And in Cuba, offensive missile sites were being built, marking the start of the Cuban missile crisis.

Closer to home, the Pacific Northwest was about to face one of the most destructive natural disasters in American history.

The World's Fair in Seattle was in its final week. In Portland, the Huskies were getting ready for a Saturday football game against the Oregon State Beavers at Multnomah Stadium.

The first inkling of trouble came just before noon on Friday, Oct. 12, 1962, when Portland radio listeners heard this:

"We interrupt our regular KGW program schedule to bring you this weather advisory. The Weather Bureau is forecasting southerly winds of 20 to 40 miles per hour today, gusting to 60 miles per hour by late this afternoon or early evening."

Windy weather isn't that unusual in the Pacific Northwest in the fall, but as the day wore on and winds gusted up to 85 mph, it became clear that the windstorm of Columbus Day 1962 would be anything but typical.

As it turned out, the winds that night and into the early hours of the next morning were the strongest ever recorded in the Pacific Northwest, similar to a category 3 hurricane. Trees tumbled, roofs were ripped off buildings, power lines were down everywhere, and huge gusts blew apart KGW's wind gauge:

"There goes our gauge. There goes our gauge. Dropped back to zero. We don't know what happened. There's wreckage coming off the roof up there, perhaps some of that wreckage hit the gauge or perhaps the bearings just burned out. But there was a 93-mile-per-hour gust and then finally the wind gauge went."

As the storm moved north, the devastation continued into Washington, where gusts topped 140 mph at the coast. In Seattle, World's Fair officials rushed to evacuate the Space Needle and clear the fairgrounds before anyone could get hurt.

Commuters were stranded by downed trees and families huddled in darkened homes, riding out the storm.

In the early morning hours of Saturday, the winds began to die down. When the sun came up, the Columbus Day Storm was blamed for 46 deaths. Power was out and phones were dead from northern California to British Columbia. Property worth hundreds of millions of dollars lay in ruin.

But what about the Beavers and the Huskies? Crews rushed to clean up the branches and roof shingles that littered the stadium, and the game went ahead as scheduled. Final score: Huskies 14, Beavers 13.

Here are a few facts about the storm:

  • 46 people dead, most of them in Oregon.
  • $235 million estimated in property damage. That’s $1.9 billion in 2015 dollars. Some estimates go far higher.
  • 15 billion board-feet of timber estimated felled. Valued at $750 million in 1962 dollars, or $5.9 billion in 2015 dollars.

Speeds for peak wind gusts were jaw-dropping (sources: “The ‘Big Blow’ of Columbus Day 1962” and “Detailed Analysis of the 1962 Columbus Day Windstorm in Oregon and Washington”:

  • 145 mph: Gust measured at Oregon’s Cape Blanco. The person in charge of the LORAN station there estimated that after the station’s anemometer was destroyed, gusts topped 170 knots, or 195 mph.
  • 138 mph: Newport, Ore.
  • 116 mph: Morrison Street Bridge in Portland
  • 100 mph: Renton
  • 98 mph: Bellingham
  • 81 mph: Paine Field in Everett

Other facts:

  • The storm began as tropical storm Freda in the central Pacific.
  • As the front passed, the temperature in Portland rose from 56 degrees to 66 in 10 minutes.
  • Roof torn off Multnomah Stadium, but University of Washington and Oregon State football teams played anyway on Oct. 13. Huskies won 14-3.
  • In Olympia, the storm uprooted the George Washington elm, grown from a cutting from the original tree in Cambridge, Mass., Legend had it that Washington took command of the Revolutionary Army there in 1775.

Editor's note: This story originally was published Oct. 12, 2012.

Correction, 10/12/2015, 9:40 a.m.: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect score for the University of Washington-Oregon State game. It was Huskies 14, Beavers 13.