Remembering the Big Blow

Book author John Dodge will speak in Cannon Beach about the 1962 Columbus Day Storm and its effect on Oregon and its wine and timber industries

On Oct. 12, 1962, the strongest windstorm in the recorded history of the West Coast battered the Pacific Northwest, claiming lives, destroying homes and businesses, and decimating farmland and forest — the latter resulting in an unexpected silver lining of sorts. John Dodge was 14 at the time, living in the Olympia area with his family. He would go on to a 40-year, award-winning career in journalism, serving as columnist, editorial page writer, and investigative reporter for The Olympian before retiring in 2015.

John Dodge says many people who attend his talks about the Columbus Day Storm are seeking closure for the event they lived through 58 years ago. Dodge was a teenager living in Olympia when the storm hit in 1962.

In 2018, Oregon State University Press published his book, A Deadly Wind: The 1962 Columbus Day Storm.  Dodge will kick off the Cannon Beach History Center & Museum’s lecture series on Jan. 16 with a presentation about that deadly day.

The free talk will be from 4 to 5 p.m.  Plan to arrive early, as no one will be admitted after 4:15.

We talked with Dodge about his memories and his research. His comments have been edited for length and clarity.

Where were you when the storm hit?

I was at a football game and right before kickoff, a state trooper came out and told everyone to go home — a big storm is coming. Right about then, the lights went out and the winds kicked up. We lived in the woods in a very rural area on property with a lot of Douglas firs. Our fear was our house was really vulnerable and we didn’t think it would be safe there. So our family went to a friend’s house in a suburban development. Then a tree came down. We were lucky not to be in the room where the tree fell. Later, after the storm had passed, Dad and I got in our truck and drove back to the house. Lo and behold, there were trees all over, but nothing hit the house. It was one of those ironies, we went to a house to get safe from the trees only to be struck by a tree.

Among the casualties of the 1962 Columbus Day storm was the Campbell Hall bell tower at the Oregon College of Education (now Western Oregon University) in Monmouth. The iconic photo shot by college student Wes Luchau illustrates the cover of John Dodge’s book, “A Deadly Wind.”

What is notable for you about the storm?

Most notable is that it seems the number of fatalities and injuries could have been much greater. There were a lot of “there but for the grace of God go I” type of experiences. I tallied 63 direct and indirect deaths. Indirect would be folks who died of, say, a heart attack the next day cleaning up debris or someone who fell off their roof trying to attach a TV antenna. Direct deaths — people who died in the storm — are closer to 46. There were 300 serious injuries requiring someone to be hospitalized.

We’re used to some big wind here on the Coast. How big was this?

The highest peak winds were probably at Cape Blanco (four miles north of Port Orford) on the headland. There was a Coast Guard station there. Their wind gauge blew out before the worst of the winds arrived. When it blew out, they had already recorded a 145 mph gust. Most of those at the station thought the winds hit 175 to 185 mph gusts. There were sustained winds of over 110 mph. That would be the equivalent of a Category 3 hurricane. Ground zero of the storm was the Willamette Valley. You’ll find the most harrowing stories coming from Salem, Eugene, Corvallis, and Portland. People succumbed to the wind all the way to Vancouver, B.C.

What conditions created the storm?

Basically, you had a decaying typhoon from the Western Pacific march across the ocean and settle off of Northern California. It was re-energized by a cold front from the Aleutians and a warm air mass from the south, the tropics. They created huge temperature and pressure differences. This is called a mid-latitude cyclone. It’s in the family of hurricanes and typhoons. The thing that makes it stand out from the other major windstorms on the coast was that the low-pressure center, the eye of the storm, was so close to the land mass; the strongest winds were right over the Willamette Valley and Puget Sound.

Winds destroyed the Riley Creek Elementary School gymnasium in Gold Beach. Photo by The Oregonian, courtesy of John Dodge

Was there a lot of warning? 

No. You have to take yourself back to 1962 and weather forecasting. Forecasting was more art than science. There were no supercomputers to model advancing storms, no satellites to track what is going on out in the Pacific Ocean. There was very little advance warning. There was some early warning the morning of the storm from ships at sea that were getting battered. They were sending in weather information that something big is happening out here. The forecasters saw the barometric pressure plunge, started noticing widespread power outages, and put two and two together that something big was coming. They issued warnings of winds to 60 to 70 mph in Portland. They missed by 30 to 40 mph.   

What stories stay with you?

I think one of the more interesting stories was a little boy in Spanaway who was in his yard playing in the wind like lots of little kids who did not know what the dangers were. He was attacked and mauled by an African lion. His neighbors had two pet African lionesses in a flimsy enclosure in the back yard. The enclosure blew down and they were prowling the neighborhood. He survived the attack, but was scarred by it. He just missed losing his eyesight from bites and claw punctures. To me, that is one of the more bizarre stories.

You also write about a wine country connection?

At the time of the storm, the Willamette Valley was home to thousands of acres of walnut, filbert, and plum orchards. Many of those were decimated by the winds and the land lay fallow for several years. Along come these wine pioneers, the families that had done the research and studies of the likelihood of the pinot noir grape being able to prosper in the Willamette Valley. They bought the land for pennies on the dollar. If the storm hadn’t hit, the land wouldn’t have come on the market the way it did at such appealing prices. These were people rich with ideas, but too poor financially to launch a business. Some pretty well-known names in the Willamette Valley: Dick Erath, the Sokol Blossers. It’s a multi-billion-dollar industry now. To me, that’s pretty significant.

Winds snapped trees in the Siuslaw National Forest. The arrow points to a man standing on a sheared-off fir. U.S. Department of Agriculture photo, courtesy of John Dodge

You also write about the impact on the timber export market.

One well-known consequence is the birth of the log export market of all the downed timber from the storm. We were sending just a trickle overseas to Asia at the time. The storm led to a huge increase in the volume of timber moving to Japan. Japan was rebuilding its economy after World War II. They loved to build homes of wood. The mills in the Northwest didn’t have the capacity to handle all that wood. It was enough to frame 1 million houses. It was four times the amount of timber blown down by the eruption of Mount St. Helens and more than what was lost in the Tillamook Forest fires. It was the most wood on the ground in recorded history in the Northwest.

You’ve shared your story with audiences throughout the Pacific Northwest. What is the response? 

I always ask for a show of hands at the front of the talk. I find that the audience is predominantly storm survivors and they are getting some closure on an event that for many happened when they were very young. It was 58 years ago, so a lot of people were teenagers or younger. The thing I notice is they seem to feel like they are getting questions answered about things they never understood. This was a seminal moment in their lives. Ten days later, it was off the front page because of the Cuban missile crisis. The storm became second fiddle to a much bigger global story.  

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