On Oct. 12, 1962, George R. Miller was a young weather observer with the National Weather Bureau, just two years removed from receiving his degree in atmospheric sciences from the University of Washington.
Based at the Portland Airport that evening, Miller had a ringside seat for the most destructive windstorm to strike the Pacific Northwest in recorded history — the Columbus Day Storm.
Miller came on duty about 3 p.m. Before the night was over, the meteorological bomb that exploded from Northern California to British Columbia had caused roughly $250 million damage, which is close to $1.8 billion in today’s dollars. It claimed some 46 lives, uprooted 11 billion to 15 billion board feet of trees — more than three times the tree damage from the eruption of Mount St. Helens — clocked wind gusts the equivalent of a Category 4 hurricane and damaged more homes and building than it spared in the Willamette Valley in Oregon.
As the storm, a combination of the remnants of Typhoon Freda energized by a high pressure system from the Gulf of Alaska, raced north that day, Miller and his colleagues at the weather station in Portland had very little information to work with. There were no weather buoys at sea. Computer weather models were crude. The United States weather satellites were in their orbiting infancy. Weather forecasters and observers were relying on reports from ships at sea and weather stations along the path of the storm, but they were blinking out from wind damage and power outages.
Miller stepped outside his office at the airport about 4 p.m. He observed scattered clouds, no rain and light winds.
He thought to himself: Maybe the worst is over. Maybe the morning forecast for that night, which called for winds 20 to 40 miles per hour with gusts up to 60 mph, was overstated. After all, it was the strongest wind forecast ever issued from the Portland Airport.
Miller didn’t know that as he breathed a sigh of relief, a weather observer at the Corvallis Airport, fearing for his life, was about to abandon his station, but not before noting on his weather observation log a wind gust of 127 mph. Then the power failed and the instruments were destroyed by the wind.
“The first clue we had (about 5 p.m.) was when Eugene reported gusts to 86 mph,” Miller said.
By rush hour in Portland, the morning forecast was blown away by wind gusts estimated at 104 mph at the National Weather Bureau’s brick building headquarters at the airport. In downtown Portland, a gust of 116 mph was clocked on the Morrison Avenue Bridge at 6:14 p.m.
“The power went out and I swear I could feel that brick building shake in the wind,” Miller recalled during his noon hour talk Monday at the state Capitol Museum.
In his talk, Miller pointed out the striking similarities between the Columbus Day Storm and Superstorm Sandy, which struck the East Coast 50 years and two weeks later.
Both began as cyclones, which is the name for hurricanes born in the Atlantic Ocean and typhoons born in the Pacific Ocean. Both moved north, then traveled along the westerly jet stream. Both lost their identity as a hurricane and a typhoon, but both collided with cold air from the north that re-energized them with severe pressure gradients that caused strong winds.
Will a storm with the force of the Columbus Day Storm hit the Northwest again? “No doubt the region will see more of these storms,” he said.
Will warmer oceans and sea level rise associated with climate change cause stronger storms? “A lot of scientists subscribe to that,” Miller said diplomatically.
Will there be adequate warning before the next mega-windstorm strikes the Pacific Northwest? That was a question Miller had no trouble answering. Given the advances in weather forecasting and meteorology in the past 50 years, he gave a resounding “yes.”
“I think we would have four or five days advance notice of a storm like this,” he said.
But that raises the question: Will people heed the warning and take the necessary action to protect themselves?