Monday, May 13, 2019

A Deadly Wind: The 1962 Columbus Day Storm

A Deadly Wind: The 1962 Columbus Day Storm

Reviewed by Floyd McKay

The icons that define us are all around in this land west of the great mountains: the mountains themselves, the miles of giant trees, the powerful ocean. Our friends. Until they come to destroy us.

As they did on October 12, 1962, the day of the greatest windstorm in the modern history of the Pacific Northwest. We call it the Columbus Day Storm, a monster that killed as many as 65 people, destroyed billions of dollars of our built world and made permanent changes in the way we live.

John Dodge was 14 years old when the storms broke over his Olympia home, and he remembers the falling trees and flying debris of his neighborhood. A worse terror was waiting just a few miles away in Spanaway; seven-year-old Charley Brammer was outside his home when he was attacked by an adult African lion, liberated from a neighbor’s holding pen by the crashing trees. Ray Brammer wrestled with the lion and with the aid of a baseball bat saved his son’s life. Perhaps the most spectacular of many heroisms that harrowing night.

During his four-decade career on the Olympian, Dodge became a specialist in natural disasters, including the Mt. St. Helens eruption. He turned to the storm upon retirement, and has combined riveting personal stories with exhaustive scientific research to produce a book important to the entire Cascadia region—for the winds came ashore at San Francisco Bay and blew themselves out on Vancouver Island two days later.

Dodge reminds us of the pioneering nature of storm forecasting in 1962, using as a key example the Portland meteorologist Jack Capell, who sensed the approaching danger before his former U.S. Weather Bureau colleagues were willing to make the call. Capell’s breathless warning to his KGW radio and television listeners barely preceded the storm at it roared into the mid-Willamette Valley, the ultimate center for storm damage in the state. “The Columbus Day Storm was a freak of nature, a weather outlier, a beastly wind that caught weather forecasters flat-footed and dumbfounded,” Dodge declared.

Typhoon Freda was at the root of the Columbus Day storm, swooping ashore in northern California and southwest Oregon on Thursday, Oct. 11; five deaths were already recorded. None of today’s whiz-bang electronic systems were in place; Navy picket ships at sea were the major warning systems and communications were easily lost.

Oregon suffered 27 deaths, Washington 11; 17 were caused by falling trees. The region’s forests were clearcut in a 24-hour orgy of roaring noise and crashing timber. An estimated 15 billion board feet—enough to frame a million homes—was felled in the storm. Cleanup was massive, and dangerous, and the replacement forests were managed under a new paradigm called The Managed Forest. Many of the salvaged logs were shipped to Japan, where growth in wood-frame homes opened a new market. 

Prune and filbert orchards were destroyed in Oregon, and the prune industry never recovered—it was replaced by pinot noir grapes, a new industry growing in the rubble of the old. Dodge explains all this, in what is really quite a remarkable overview of a storm for the ages. Many witnesses are now gone; this book will remind their heirs of a remarkable natural disaster and the people who survived and built in its wake.

Hear author John Dodge at Bellingham's Chuckanut Radio Hour on May 21, 7 PM, at Whatcom Community College's Heiner Center.

Reviewer Floyd McKay resides in Bellinghan and is the author of Reporting The Oregon Story: How Activists and Visionaries Transformed A State.

*Old enough to remember the Columbus Day Storm? Share your memories and stories here.*

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