Just like I’ll never forget where I was September 11, 2001, the other date firmly etched in my mind is October 12, 1962.
I was born in Tacoma and living with my four siblings, parents and grandmother in a two story house on Melrose Street.
At the time, I was eight years old and was doing what I loved to do at that age. I was lying in the front yard, on the grass, flat on my back, basking in the warm sunshine watching the white fluffy clouds change into interesting shapes as they gently floated across the sky.
That afternoon, around 4pm, the sun disappeared. The sky changed from a brilliant blue to black. The wind picked up and it was cold.
My grandmother appeared on the porch. “Pam, there’s a bad storm coming. Time to come in now.”
Reluctantly, I got up from the ground and walked to the porch.
In 1962, we didn’t have weather satellites. Forecasters had predicted a fairly calm day with occasional sunshine. Typical weather for October in the Pacific Northwest.
What we didn’t know at the time is Typhoon Frieda, an “extra tropical cyclone,” a weather pattern formed when a cool air mass meets up with a warm one, had churned its way from California, up the coast to Washington. Located only 50 miles off shore, the storm traveled very fast: nearly 1,800 miles in less than one-and-a-half days, much faster than a hurricane. The storm came with no warning and hit hard.
Within a few minutes, the wind was much worse than I’d ever seen. Lightning cracked across the sky with loud booming thunder.
From the protection of the porch, I watched a man walking on the sidewalk in front of our house. The wind was furious. It was blowing so hard, the man was leaning forward against the wind, struggling to walk, only moving a few inches at a time. A big gush came and I saw the wind pick the man up off his feet, into the air and he was gone. I screamed. I scanned the street and sidewalk for him but didn’t see him anywhere.
Grandma heard my scream and made me come inside.
That scene would haunt me for the next thirty years. I’d replay it over and over again in my mind.
The storm raged. Grandma lit oil lamps which came in handy when the lights went off. She bedded us down in a bedroom downstairs, all four of us on the floor, covered in warm blankets.
In the darkness, something was hitting the outside of the house. Not just once or twice but repeatedly. BOOM BOOM BOOM several times a minute. Lightening lit up the sky, thunder roared.
I thought I was going to die. I cried myself to sleep.
When I woke up the next morning, it was over. I walked outside.
Very large branches were strewn all over the yard. One branch stuck in the top of our roof like a dagger. The yard was covered with debris—paper, pieces of wood, metal. As I walked down the street, I noticed the sidewalk was broken. Both pieces were sticking up in the air.
Thirty years later, I decided to find out if what I’d seen as a child was real or merely a fantasy. Was the wind strong enough to literally pick up a man off his feet and toss him in the air?
From the Tacoma Public Library, I learned the storm was called, “The Columbus Day Storm,” also known as the “Big Blow”. It’s been classified as the ‘”Storm of the Century”. It’s the ‘granddaddy of storms’ of which all other storms are compared. So far, none has been as violent as this one in 1962.
The wind for the most part wasn’t accurately measured. Wind gauges blew off buildings and/or were quickly broken. It’s been estimated the wind was well over 100mph and in some places, had been reported up to 179 mph.
As an adult, I decided the wind was strong enough to blow a man off his feet. What I had seen as a child was REAL.
The storm caused 48 deaths and between $230-280 million in damage (in 1962 dollars) across California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. It ranked as the worst natural disaster to strike the U.S. that year.
King5 looks back on that fateful day with this interesting video:
Those of us who lived through it will never forget the Columbus Day Storm of 1962.
It’s been estimated a storm of this magnitude comes inland only about once or twice each century, according to past records.
I wonder if I’ll live long enough to see another of this magnitude.