The Pacific Northwest has a reputation for producing a lot of rain, but it’s not a place most people think of when it comes to brutal, destructive storm systems. For that, there’s the Gulf Coast, with its front row tickets to the Atlantic’s annual parade of tropical storms and hurricanes, or any of the various “tornado alleys” in the plains states. Unless you’re afraid of getting a little damp, Washington, Oregon, and northern California can seem pretty placid by comparison.
But on Columbus Day of 1962, something historic came ashore in the region, and it wasn’t the Niña, the Pinta, or the Santa Maria.
In early October of that year, a tropical storm named Freda formed in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, thousands of miles away, eventually intensifying into a typhoon. While it is incredibly unusual for a typhoon — the term for a hurricane that forms in the western Pacific — to make landfall in the U.S. or Canada, Freda held strong, slamming into the West Coast with its powerful cyclonic winds.
The Columbus Day Storm of 1962 was not only one of the worst storms ever experienced by this region of North America, it is also counted among the most powerful extratropical cyclones to make landfall in the U.S. during the 20th century. Its ferocity was unmatched even by the so-called “Storm of the Century” that gripped the Eastern U.S. in March of 1993 or the 1991 Halloween Nor’easter immortalized in the book and film “The Perfect Storm.”
The storm brought winds of up to 179 miles per hour, destroying weather stations, flattening homes, toppling countless square miles of trees, and devastating the power and transportation infrastructure throughout the region. At least 46 Americans and seven Canadians lost their lives to the storm, and in some coastal towns, homes that remained unscathed were rare.
New logging roads were carved through the countryside in an effort to salvage at least some fraction of the unprecedented amount of timber — tens of billions of board feet of lumber — felled by the storm.
In addition to the heavy winds, the storm dumped record amounts of rain on the region, creating landslides and delaying some games in the 1962 World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the New York Yankees.
In all, the storm caused an estimated $200 million in damage in the U.S. — about $3 billion in today’s dollars. The bulk of that damage was focused on Oregon, which suffered the brunt of the storm’s fury. To the north, British Columbia suffered an additional $80 million in damage.
To this day, the storm remains a vivid reminder of the terrible power of nature for residents of the region who lived through it.