Columbus Day storm memories still fresh after 50 years

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDOctober 22, 2012 

When it comes to Northwest windstorms, the Columbus Day storm 50 years ago is the granddaddy. It's the Big Blow, the storm still vivid in people's memories.

"It is the windstorm that all other windstorms are measured against," said Ted Buehner, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Seattle.

By coming ashore Oct. 12, the storm gained its easy-to-remember name tied to a holiday. By arriving before the era of weather satellites and computerized forecasts, it blew in with an old-fashioned modicum of advance notice.

And with gusts reaching 98 mph in Bellingham - and a mind-boggling 179 mph on the southern Oregon coast - the storm killed more than 50 people from California to Canada, left a million people without power and damaged more than 50,000 homes.

The winds were equal to a category 3 hurricane. Regional damage, in current dollars, topped $1 billion.

"I remember seeing the large trees bent over in half," recalled 80-year-old Nancy Galbraith, who now lives in Bellingham but was a mother of four young boys in Acme in 1962. "I closed the drapes in case the windows broke."

Galbraith's husband was hunting deer in Eastern Washington at the time. When the storm toppled trees and broke limbs, the power went out at Galbraith's house. She didn't have a wood stove, but she did have a fireplace.

"I was out chopping wood most of the day to keep that fireplace going, with a dull ax," she said.

To feed her kids, she burned wood down to coals and cooked in the fireplace with an iron skillet and a Dutch oven.

"We were without power for a good week," she said.

The storm came ashore in full fury just south of the California-Oregon line, then charged north, squeezed between the Coast Range and the Cascades. It hit Whatcom County shortly before 10 p.m. and didn't clear the county until some nine hours later.

Patricia Heykamp, 83, feared the large old tree by her house in Welcome would crash through a window.

"A lot of trees on the hill above us blew over," she said. "It was terrifying."

Dick Hall of Everson, now 69, was living and working with his aunt and uncle at their poultry farm on West Smith Road. That night, his uncle woke him up with bad news - the storm had lifted seven of the farm's 19 large chicken houses off their foundations.

"We had chickens running all over the place for quite a few weeks," Hall said.

No deaths were reported in Whatcom County, but injuries were reported. In Maple Falls, a 59-year-old woman somehow suffered only scrapes and bruises after being hit by a telephone pole. In Bellingham, a 79-year-old woman was hospitalized after a gust blew her off her front porch.

The storm heavily damaged the roof and light poles at Bellingham's Battersby field, and blew off the roof from the third-base side of the grandstand. Luckily, plans for new sports facilities at Civic Field were already in the works.

On Telegraph Road, the roof of a chicken house became airborne for nearly 100 feet. In flight, it broke two trees, demolished a shed and nearly hit the fellow who was renting the farm.

On South Hill, a brick façade atop Lowell School collapsed, sending bricks crashing through the roof and a window.

Damage along the waterfront was comparatively light, but several fishing boats washed ashore at Point Whitehorn, and Chief Kwina, the ferry recently retired from the Lummi Island run, sank while moored at the island.

Local boaters had advance notice of the storm thanks to a tall steel tower on East Pine Street, near the Bellingham Armory. Ron Newell, a 19-year-old student at Western Washington State College, had been hired by his grandparents, who lived next to the tower, to hoist weather-warning flags during the day and to turn on warning lanterns at night. Boaters would fix their binoculars on the flags, or see the lanterns at night, to learn about approaching storms.

Newell's grandmother handled the job for many years, but she was growing old and needed someone younger to climb the tower's ladder to deal with the flags.

"We were known as storm warning displaymen," said Newell, who lives in Bellingham.

Normally, they received a telegram about incoming weather from the federal Weather Bureau office in Seattle. On Columbus Day, Newell received a daytime telegram from the bureau in Oregon, because while the weather in Puget Sound was calm, the Portland office had received a report from a Navy ship off the coast of California about gale-force winds and a steep drop in barometric pressure.

So Newell hoisted a pair of square red flags with black centers, the official "whole gale" or hurricane warning. The flags signaled that havoc was headed toward Whatcom County.

"I was probably the first person in Bellingham to know," Newell said.

Contact Dean Kahn at dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com or 360-715-2291.

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