Oregon Trails: Storm Of The Century

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MEDFORD, Ore. – Friday marks the 520th anniversary of the day in 1492 when Atlantic trade winds blew Christopher Columbus’ fleet ashore in the Americas. It’s also the 50th anniversary when a huge Pacific windstorm blew ashore on the pacific coast in what many call the storm of the century for the Northwest.

When people talk about big storms of the northwest, the Columbus Day storm of 1962 has to be at the top of the list. Following several days of rain in early October, the jet stream over our area picked up the dying energy of Pacific Typhoon Freda, and became a storm for the record books that left almost 50 people dead and hundreds of millions of dollars in timber and other property destroyed.

“84 homes were completely destroyed. Over 5,200 homes received major damage! And another almost 47,000 homes had at least minor damage! So, there’s no question in my mind it was the worst storm of the 20th century, in the Pacific Northwest,” said former PG&E forecaster, Leon Hunsaker. Hunsaker was a meteorologist for the California-based utility company at the time.

“I happened to be forecasting at PG&E, and on the 17th floor of their headquarters building in downtown San Francisco, we had gusts to 60 miles an hour! It was just incredible,” Hunsaker said.

In San Francisco, two games of the 1962 World Series were postponed.

“In the Rogue Valley, the peak wind gusts at the airport was 58 miles an hour, which does cause damage, but when I looked through reports of damage, everything’s focused on the Willamette Valley! There was just so much damage up there, the winds were so much higher, that the Rogue Valley kind of got left out of it,” explained Ryan Sandler, with the National Weather Service.

The coast was also hammered. The meteorologist’s log at the Medford Weather Bureau includes a graph showing the sudden plunge in barometric pressure when the storm passed by; down to 28.99 inches of mercury.

“This would be in the top 10 of low pressures, that were around Medford,” Sandler explained.

Signs and trees were blown down and roofs torn off. The screen at the Redwood Drive-In in Grants Pass also blew down, and there were numerous power outages. The Rogue Valley Pear Harvest was also set back, and much of the crop that remained was blown off the trees. In other places, trees were blown down on houses and cars.

In Klamath Falls, sparks were blown from a small fire at Ellingson Lumber Company into dry sawdust and lumber piles, creating an inferno fanned by winds of more than 50 miles an hour. The entire mill burned down, despite pouring rain and the efforts of almost every fire unit in the Klamath Basin. It was also game night for high schools and many had to be postponed because of howling winds and pouring rain.

Thousands were without power for days afterward. 50 years ago, meteorologists didn’t have satellite maps and other things to let them know what storm was coming and so when it finally did arrive, there was very little warning.

“In 1962 they had no satellite data. They had no buoy data. They had no computer models. So they basically had a blind eye to the whole thing coming and they were forecasting improving conditions, for Columbus Day! Because the day before there was a storm that hit, and they thought things would bet better behind that storm and then they got a Navy ship report off Northern California of 90 mile an hour winds,” Sandler said.

“And they also saw pressure falling rapidly at some of the land stations and they put that information together, and they decided to put out what would be the equivalent of a high wind warning today for, for all of Western Oregon. And it was too late though! It was too little, too late! It was 10 a.m. when they did that. The storm struck in the afternoon, so most people didn’t get the word, that a big storm was coming, and they were caught by surprise!”

Sandler explained a more famous storm a few years later that became a book and movie, called the Perfect Storm, does not compare with the Columbus Day storm of 1962.

“It had stronger winds. It was the equivalent of a Category 3 hurricane, whereas the Perfect Storm was more like a Category 2 hurricane! The only thing that could be worse, for Oregon as far as a natural disaster, would be Cascadia Earthquake and tsunami. There’s really nothing else that could compare to this type of windstorm happening today,” said Sandler.

Ryan Sandler also says there was a similar Northwest storm reported in the 1880’s that could be similar to the Columbus Day Storm of 1962, but the damage to life and structures was much less because the state was far less populated. Hunsaker says there may also have been a similar storm in Northern California in 1824, based on the records from Russian sailors near San Francisco.