Big bad weather
When deadly weather comes, it usually catches Oregon by surprise
By Finn J.D. John
With the 50-year anniversary of the Columbus Day Storm this month, big bad weather is on many people’s minds.
As you likely know, the Columbus Day Storm was a fading typhoon, still well over hurricane strength but by Caribbean standards pretty average, that showed up unexpectedly and made a huge mess in western Oregon on Oct. 12, 1962.
But of course, the main reason the storm did so much damage is that Oregon is not known as a place in which you have to worry about hurricanes of any size. Nor do we get those High Plains storms with hailstones the size of golf balls, or tornadoes that vacuum up houses full of Dorothy and Toto, or dust storms you can’t see the house through. What counts for bad weather in Oregon — the western part, anyway — is gray dreariness, not deadly run-for-your-life drama. Right?
Well, it turns out that’s not entirely true. Oregon has had some wild and grim weather events through the years. But whereas folks in other places have long since made their peace with deadly weather (by building storm cellars, for instance), the bad stuff when it arrives in Oregon always carries with it the element of surprise. Because we just don’t think we get stuff like …
The Columbus Day Storm certainly fits into this category. But so does an earlier storm — one that killed considerably more people, although we have no record of how strong it really was. That storm lit into the extreme northwest corner of Oregon in May 1880 — ironically, just five months after another massive storm, known simply as “the Great Gale,” struck the same area.
Records on this May storm are sketchy, mostly consisting of newspaper stories. But like the Columbus Day Storm, it was actually more than one storm; and, again like the legendary 1962 event, it happened under relatively untroubled-looking skies, right up until it pounced.
When it did, it caught virtually the entire lower Columbia salmon fishing fleet out by the river bar, nets in the water, miles and miles from the safety of the shoreline and still being carried seaward by the ebbing tide. Dozens of little 24-foot fishing boats were swamped and their crews drowned; dozens more, in desperation, cut their nets loose and pulled for shore, and some of them made it, and some did not.
Then, the next day, the storm abated just in time for the fishing tide, and more fishermen went out on the bar, and — and the storm kicked back up, just like the day before, taking a fresh batch of victims to the bottom.
The Daily Astorian at the time said about 60 fishermen drowned in those two days. Other sources put the number even higher.
Remember those size-XXL hailstones I mentioned above? Some of those hailstones visited Heppner, Oregon, in 1903, and killed 247 people. Here’s how:
Heppner was going about its business on June 14, 1903. It was a typical early-summer day, but a storm was moving in, and soon those big hailstones were falling on the town. Everybody ran inside, of course, to avoid a pummeling.
The hailstones kept falling on Heppner, keeping up a steady roar, making sure that the people in the houses couldn’t hear the wall of water that was racing down the canyon toward the residential district of the town.
When the water struck, it picked up the houses and carried them helplessly downstream and deposited them in giant flattened heaps of sticks and splinters and flesh and bone. The survival rate for people caught indoors when the waters hit was very low. Estimates for the size of the wall of water range from a ludicrous 50 feet high, down to an equally ludicrous 6, but whatever it really was, it was enough.
One out of every 6 Heppner residents died. It was the deadliest non-dam-related flash flood in U.S. history, and the deadliest weather-related event in Oregon’s recorded history.
Tornadoes? So many people in Oregon seem to think we just don’t get these. But residents of the town of Aumsville know better, and so does almost everyone nearby. Just two years ago, a big fat funnel cloud put down its giant gray nozzle and vacuumed the roofs off of 20 or 30 buildings, bowled over dozens of trees and pulled houses off their foundations. The National Weather Service estimated the winds were in the 110- to 120-mph range. Miraculously, no one was even hurt.
Another, less damaging tornado snuck ashore in Lincoln City in the middle of a stormy January night back in 1996. Residents woke up the next morning to find it had visited the parking lot of a manufactured home dealership, where it had picked one house up and set it down on top of another; it had also apparently scooped up a bunch of fish from the ocean and dropped them in a nearby parking lot. Again, though, nobody was hurt — other than the fish.
Older residents may remember an earlier tornado, though, in which that was not the case. In 1972, a really large tornado (well, large for Oregon; by Midwestern standards, it was pretty average) formed over north Portland, blowing north toward Vancouver. Just as it reached the Columbia River, it dropped a funnel cloud down to the ground.
Luckily for Oregon, all it did was trash a marina full of unoccupied cabin cruisers. But Washington wasn’t so lucky. After crossing the Columbia River, the tornado lit into Vancouver and made a beeline for an elementary school. It destroyed the school, flattened a nearby bowling alley, damaged a number of homes and carved a nine-mile gash into east Vancouver before petering out. Behind it, it left six people dead, and 70 elementary-school students injured. Winds were estimated in the 160 to 200 mph range; it was the worst tornado in West Coast history.
So, yes, we get tornadoes. Just not often enough for us to be expecting them when they come. In fact, according to the National Weather Service, there have been a total of just 69 of them in the past 115 years.
Other big events
In the category of non-weather-related natural disasters, Oregon also has a few tricks to play. For instance, it was only a little over 100 years ago that big, snowy, mild-mannered Mount Hood was an active volcano, periodically shooting fire into the sky and sprinkling the area with ash.
And, of course, we can’t forget about the Cascadia Earthquake, a magnitude-nine monster that brought a giant tsunami ashore all along the Northwest coast 312 years ago, and which scientists say is due to repeat itself sometime in the next century or two.
So yes, in general, Oregon weather is nice and mild, if a bit damp and sometimes a little gusty. But don’t be fooled … it can get ugly. And when it does, it usually catches us with our guard down.
(Sources: National Weather Service reports; The Daily Astorian, May 1880 issues; DenOuden, Bob. “The Heppner Flood of 1903,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, spring 2004)
Finn J.D. John is an instructor at Oregon State University and the author of “Wicked Portland,” a book about the dark side of Oregon’s metropolis in the 1890s. To contact him or suggest a topic: firstname.lastname@example.org, @OffbeatOregon (on Twitter), or 541-357-2222.
McKenzie River Reflections