Columbus Day Storm: 50 Years Later

Worst Northwest weather event in modern history blew through Vancouver

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

Published:

 

If you go

Commemoration

What: The Oregon Chapter of the American Meteorological Society will host a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Columbus Day Storm.

When: 10 a.m. Saturday.

Where: Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, 1945 S.E. Water Ave., Portland.

Cost: The event is free and open to the public.

Exhibit

What: The Oregon History Museum’s exhibit observing the 50th anniversary of the Columbus Day Storm, “The Mightiest Wind.”

When: Opens today.

Where: 1200 S.W. Park St., Portland.

On the Web: Visitor information is at Oregon Historical Society.

Dean and Karen Moreland's wedding was scheduled for 7 p.m. in a Vancouver church.

This is how he remembers the Friday evening: "That was a horrible night!"

That same night, Steve Shirey pulled his face out of the mud and opened his eyes. The high school football player was left wondering why -- in just a few seconds -- the world had gone away.

"I couldn't hear anything, I couldn't see anything," recalled Shirey. "I thought I'd gone blind or had a neck injury."

Shirey wasn't hurt, and the Morelands' relationship was strong. But their lives had just crossed paths with the Columbus Day Storm.

Fifty years ago, the most powerful Pacific Northwest weather event in modern history raked stretches of California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.

The storm killed about 50 people, including three in Vancouver. About 70 people were treated at two local hospitals over the weekend for storm-related injuries .

Gusts of 170 mph were reported along the Oregon Coast, and some people around the Northwest were without power for weeks. Steve Pierce of Vancouver, weather blogger for The Columbian, says it's the yardstick against which all Northwest storms are measured.

So far, nothing has even come close, said Pierce, who is president of the Oregon Chapter of the American Meteorological Society.

The storm provided moments that remain vivid after half a century -- such as Larry Winters' paper route/parasailing adventure, the sideways portion of Jerry Pierce's drive home from work and the Morelands' disrupted wedding.

Dean Moreland said he was at his parents' house in Minnehaha, getting dressed, when the storm hit.

"My dad had a tree in the backyard that must have been three feet thick. It went down like a toothpick," said Moreland, who moved with Karen to Missouri seven years ago. "Trees and power lines were down all over town. Try to put your tuxedo on in the dark."

Saw storm brewing

One Vancouver resident was watching the storm in Japan a few days before it hit the West Coast. On that side of the Pacific, it was called Typhoon Frieda, and Clyde Kment was tracking it at an Army weather station.

"We were mapping it, and when it went into the Northern Pacific, it lost power. We stopped tracking it," said Kment. (He was featured a few days ago in The Columbian when Home Depot organized remodeling projects for several veterans).

A few days later, Kment said, "My parents told me they had a Columbus Day storm. I thought, 'Well: That's the storm we had tracked.'"

After it hit the coast, the storm was steered into a funnel formed by the Coast Range and the Cascades, Pierce said. It hit the Portland area just after 5 p.m. with a force approaching a Category 3 hurricane.

Pierce wasn't around in 1962, but his dad, Jerry, can give a mile-by-mile account of his drive home. Jerry Pierce worked in Portland at Jantzen Knitting Mills and walked out of the office with a friend at about 5 p.m. That's when a big billboard across the street disintegrated, and "Brad's hat took off, and he chased it down the street," Jerry Piece said.

Pierce was near Lloyd Center when a gust of wind hit his Volkswagen Beetle. "It blew me sideways off the road and into a service station. That probably was the scariest thing all day," he said. "I went right between the pumps and out the other side, and then I was in the shelter of a building."

After making it across the Columbia River, "I went by Pearson Field, and planes were rolling end over end, wings snapping off," Pierce said.

On Mill Plain Boulevard in the Heights, Pierce drove past an office building with a gravelled roof.

"I got showered with gravel. It pecked my paint job to pieces, but didn't break any windows. I got home OK and found my wife and kids hiding under a bed."

Paper route parasail

Larry Winters was on his paper route near Tigard, Ore., when the wind picked up.

"It got pretty bad by the time I was done. I had one more newspaper to deliver. There was a railroad track in front of the place, but I never touched the tracks," he said. The wind caught his newspaper bag and sailed him over both trails.

After his final delivery, he took shelter at a friend's house, where the two boys sat at the picture window and watched the storm. When things calmed down, they went outside to survey the damage and a nearby trailer park caught their attention.

"One of them had its wheels on top of the trailer. They don't store the wheels there," Winters, now a Battle Ground resident, said.

That's when they realized, "The wind had flipped it over and set it down right on its slab."

Winds that hit an official high of 92 mph in Vancouver toppled thousands of trees, knocking down utility lines. At one point, the only power customer getting electricity was a north county mill with a direct transmission line from Yale Dam.

Falling trees kill two

In Vancouver, those powerful winds were responsible for three deaths. Two people were killed by falling trees; the third storm victim suffered a heart attack when a corner of her mobile home was knocked off its blocks.

An account in The Columbian's Monday edition (there were no weekend editions in 1962) illustrated how people suffered storm-related injuries: a collapsing barn; flying debris; windblown tree limbs; auto accidents; and broken glass.

A few suffered burns, and one woman was treated for carbon monoxide poisoning from cooking on a charcoal burner inside her house.

At about 7 p.m., the storm hit the Puget Sound area, where Shirey's Edmonds High School was playing Shoreline.

"In the first quarter, we forced them to punt," said Shirey, now a Ridgefield resident. "The wind blew it back. The punter caught his own punt and we threw him for a 10-yard loss."

In the second quarter, "I made my block, and fell face down in the mud."

That's when Shirey wondered why he was unable to see or hear anything. Then Shirey saw the lights of a car go by the field, and he heard a girl scream.

"Just as we'd run that play, the power went out at the stadium," he said.

They finished the game on Monday.

And the Morelands' wedding?

"We were married the next day by candlelight," Dean said.

A romantic touch, certainly, but that power outage created plenty of other problems.

"We had some ice cream to put in the punch," Dean said. "It melted."

Tom Vogt: 360-735-4558; http://www.twitter.com/col_history;tom.vogt@columbian.com.