Published October 12, 2012
Soundings: Shelton man did job to warn Navy about Columbus Day storm in '62JOHN DODGE
Shelton resident Bill Bruder was a Navy weather observer in 1962, stationed on Guam Island but spending much of his time in the air that year tracking typhoons in the mid-Pacific. Of the 29 typhoons he helped monitor that year, none stands out in his mind like Typhoon Freda. No small wonder: Freda was the storm that reached across the ocean to form the foundation for the Oct. 12, 1962, Columbus Day Storm, the most ferocious and damaging storm to strike the Pacific Northwest since white settlers arrived. Fifty years later, Bruder’s memories of the days leading up to Oct. 12 are both vivid and a bit haunting. On Oct. 3, 1962, Bruder’s crew aboard a Lockheed EC 121 triple-tail Super Constellation started tracking the storm about 500 miles and 15 degrees north of Wake Island. With winds of 115 miles per hour, the storm moved 400 miles northeast of Midway Island on Oct. 7. By Oct. 9 the typhoon turned south, influenced by a Siberian high-pressure system. By then, the airborne typhoon trackers had both the Aleutian Islands chain and North America on their radar screen . Bruder recalls radioing Navy weather officials at Pearl Harbor, telling them Freda was still a full-blown storm headed toward the West Coast, about 1,000 miles away. “We asked if they wanted us to continue tracking the storm.” Bruder, 71, recalled. They said: “Nah, don’t worry about it. The storm will cool down and dissipate.” Instead Typhoon Freda kept chugging east, ending up as a mass of unruly warm air off the Northern California coast that mixed with moist, warm air from the south and cold air from a high-pressure system barreling south from the Gulf of Alaska. A potent extratropical cyclone was born Oct. 11, unbeknownst to weather forecasters. The next indication of wild weather brewing came at 9 a.m. Oct. 12 from a Navy radar picket ship some 340 miles west of Fort Bragg, Calif., that reported winds of 92 miles per hour and a staggeringly low barometric reading of 28.42 inches. An hour later, the National Weather Bureau issued high-wind warnings for Northern California, Oregon and Washington. But the lack of precise meteorological data – plus a desire not to cause public panic – tempered the warning. The intensity of the storm caught everyone by surprise. Winds – ranging from 160 mph at Naselle, Wash., to 78 mph that night in Olympia – claimed 48 lives, injured 1,200 others, damaged 50,000 buildings, left millions in the dark for days and toppled some 15 billion board-feet of timber – enough lumber to replace every home in the state and three times the volume dropped by the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. The property damage was pegged at $235 million, which in today’s dollars would be closer to $1.79 billion. But at the time, Washington and Oregon were home to fewer than 5 million people. Today nearly 11 million live in the two states. And Western Washington, which was directly in harm’s way, has some 5.25 million people, compared with 2.1 million 50 years ago. “I have little doubt that if the CDS (Columbus Day Storm) hit today, it would result in many billions, if not tens of billions of dollars of damage,” University of Washington atmospheric sciences professor Cliff Mass posted on his weather blog Wednesday. Bruder learned of the damage from the storm after flying back to Guam. All these years later, he’s matter-of-fact about the historic chain of events leading up to the storm. “We told them it was going to hit the West Coast; we did our job,” Bruder said. The Navy weather folks only had the tools they had – no satellite imagery, no computers, no weather buoys at sea. The technology and data instruments just weren’t there, Bruder noted. Bruder jokingly refers to the typhoon trackers five decades ago as “human Doppler radar screens” lacking the precision of the Doppler radar installed off the Washington coast in September 2011. All the tools at the disposal of weather forecasters today suggest the threat of a similar storm would be mentioned in a weather outlook forecast three or four days in advance of landfall, said Ted Buehner, a warning-coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Seattle. “We would issue a storm watch probably two days in advance, telling the public to get ready and be prepared, and we’d issue a warning that the storm is imminent 24 hours in advance,” Buehner suggested. But there’s always the question of whether the public heeds the advice. In addition, weather forecasters still walk that fine line between providing enough information and stirring public panic. “There’s always a sense of anxiety when you issue these storm warnings,” Buehner said. That said, the 50-year anniversary of the Pacific Northwest’s most destructive storm is good opportunity to remind the public to prepare for the 2012-13 storm season, which is about to begin. For tips on how to prepare, go to takewinterbystorm.org. Better yet, attend the free emergency-preparedness expo sponsored by Thurston County from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at the Saint Martin’s University Marcus Pavilion and Worthington Conference Center, 5300 Pacific Ave. SE, Lacey.
John Dodge: 360-754-5444