Recalling a forgotten epic windstorm in 1981 that swept through the Northwest

On Friday, April 7, an unusual spring windstorm swept through Portland with winds gusting to close to 60 m.p.h. Although it was not accompanied by heavy rain, many trees went down, as did many more big limbs, and the power outages stretched into early the following week across the city. PGE said it was the worst windstorm in Portland in over a decade.

Of course, those winds paled compared to the famous Columbus Day windstorm of October 12, 1962, which caused destruction and even deaths from Central California north into Canada.

Wikipedia, that online bastion of knowledge, reports, "At Oregon's Cape Blanco, an anemometer that lost one of its cups registered wind gusts in excess of 145 miles per hour (233 km/h); some reports put the peak velocity at 179 miles per hour . . . In Salem, Oregon, a wind gust of 90 miles per hour was observed. . . In Portland, measured wind gusts reached 116 miles per hour (187 km/h) at the Morrison Street Bridge."

But in discussing this storm and others in the Northwest, even Wikipedia is overlooking an Oregon storm that may have even exceeded those wind velocities: The windstorm of Friday, November 13, 1981. Never heard of it? Well, it was not forecast, it hit after midnight, and you might have slept right through it. And nobody died, so it seems to have been forgotten.

However, your editor remembers it well; and a conversation with an employee of the National Weather Service a few years ago yielded the admission that it might actually have packed stronger winds here than the Columbus Day storm. We'll tell you about it.

Your editor was managing an AM radio station in Dallas, Oregon, west of Salem, at the time – KWIP – which had just gone on the air earlier that year; and although it had already been authorized to change dial position and become a fulltime station, it was at that time still a daytime-only station operating at 1460 kHz.

The station's newsman, David Ross Jordan, had made arrangements to get reports on the state high school playoff games that Friday night – November 13, 1981; it was a Friday the Thirteenth – for use on the news broadcasts on the following morning. Early in the evening he received a call from Medford – the game had been called at halftime, because very strong winds had sprung up and made continued play impossible. (We then checked the forecast. No winds or storm were expected. Puzzling.)

An hour later the call from Roseburg indicated that the game there had just been completed when sudden overpowering winds arrived which took out the power in town, and damaged the stadium. (Still no report of unusual weather on the AP newswire. Odd.)

Your editor called his wife, who was then doing graduate study at the U of O in Eugene, and suggested she clear out for the weekend – some very strong winds were on their way.

At about 10:40 p.m., we stepped outside the radio station, on Ellendale Road ten miles west of Salem, and looked up. The clouds overhead were traveling northeast at an unbelievable speed – it was like looking at a speeded-up movie of the sky. To this day we have never seen anything else like it. Our station had signed off the air for the night, but we began considering activating the "Emergency Broadcast System" to inform the residents of Polk County of the developing dangerous situation.

Ten minutes later, we heard sirens to the southwest, in downtown Dallas, and learned that a roof had just blown off a house. We activated the Emergency Broadcast System and went back on the air to report what little we knew at that point – there was STILL no report of any of this on the AP newswire.

We called a station in Corvallis, and did a two-station broadcast for a while, as objects (including corrugated metal siding) started flying through the air in the mid-Willamette Valley. Heavy rain began falling. At midnight, the Corvallis station signed off the air on schedule, and went home! We kept going.

In that memorable night, we started getting telephone calls from all over the place – from Crescent City, California, north into Canada. Listeners called in reports from wherever they were, and we were actually able to track with the phone calls the "eye" of what seemed to be a hurricane, as it moved north right through the Willamette Valley and north into Washington and ultimately Canada.

The power was out from Crescent City to Canada on the coast, and the Oregon State Police and local police agencies on the coast called in to our station to inform their own citizens; sustained winds of over 100 mph were reported in the central Willamette Valley, and power was going out all over the western part of the state.

Our transmitter in the back room had to be covered with a tarp because rain was blowing in under the back door of the station and then up over the transmitter. Now and then a power dip would take us off the air, but the power always returned, and we turned the transmitter back on and kept going.

People were wakened in the night by the scream of the winds outside and turned on their radios all over the region, and they tuned around and found us. Our staff returned – including Scott Tom, who remains a fixture in Portland radio, and these days lives in Sellwood – and answered phones and gathered information all night. Ms. BEE, Jane Kenney-Norberg, arrived safely from Eugene and took phone calls till well past dawn. The phones were continually ringing until after sunrise.

As it turned out, no other radio station in Portland or elsewhere had chosen to cover the storm – the news station in Portland at that time, KYXI, had lost its tower system, and others were carrying network talk shows – and in the morning we had broadcasters in Portland calling US for information. Winds were dying down as morning dawned, but debris was everywhere, and days of cleanup followed.

The old Oregon Journal in Portland, just a year or so before the Oregonian bought it and closed it down, ran a headline, "Dallas daylighter becomes ear of Northwest", and the station later won a number of news awards for its live storm coverage that night.

We learned several interesting things about the storm, shortly afterward….

Two days after the storm, on Sunday the 15th, the Oregonian ran a picture of a wind-recording graph from an anemometer on a mountaintop on the south Oregon coast that night. It showed the winds climbing steadily until the pen reached the top of the graph and "flat-lined" there, with no dips at all for over an hour in the early morning. The top of the graph was 180 m.p.h.! That suggested that the peak winds may have been well over 200 mph at that location for at least an hour, making it the strongest windstorm ever recorded in Oregon.

The reason the Weather Bureau had not known the storm was coming was that there were no satellites overhead to observe it, yet, in those days – and apparently no ship at sea had reported it, as it revolved into a monster storm in the Pacific well west of Crescent City. Nobody knew it was there until it started moving north northeast and came ashore near Brookings. Nobody reported it to the Associated Press THEN, because as soon as it hit, the power went out.

The first report on AP occurred after it hit Eugene and all the power there went out – less than 15 minutes after our spouse left, driving north, as it turned out – but even then, nobody knew what to expect next.

We learned that a big rig driver coming into Oregon from Idaho had tuned around on his radio and heard our coverage, and turned right back around and spent the night in Idaho!

We later received mail from both Canada and Australia about that broadcast, as well as from Oregon, California, and Washington. One of the awards we received for our coverage that night was the International Spot News Award – for which we beat out a Washington DC station which had been reporting on the return of the hostages from Iran.

And finally, an executive at PP&L in Dallas, Oregon, commented to us a couple of weeks later, "good thing we changed your circuit a few days earlier; the one you had been on was off all that night. The one we moved you to was the only one in the whole valley that never lost power." Till then, we had no idea anybody had changed our circuit, or that we'd had the most reliable circuit in Oregon that night. That was eerie.

So you see, we will never forget the windstorm of November 13, 1981. And who knows – our all-night broadcast might actually have helped ensure that were no deaths from that storm.

The windstorm of April 7 of this year was certainly more severe than usual; you'll find extensive coverage and photos about it in this issue of THE BEE, with contributions from all our correspondents.

But, there has been worse here. And now you know the rest of the story.

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