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Columnist Paul Keller recounts his harrowing experience of surviving the Columbus Day Storm on Oct. 12, 1962.

COURTESY PHOTO - An Oct. 13, 1962 newspaper front page details the devastation that had occurred the day before.

When I woke up on the morning of Oct. 12, 1962, I had absolutely no idea that several hours later our century's most lethal, destructive storm in the history of the Pacific Northwest would wallop us with hurricane-force winds and 46 people would die.

None of us did.

Paul KellerWe were totally unaware that one of the greatest devastating weather events ever experienced in this region of North America was hurtling toward us.

Even today, I think we tend to forget and overlook the severity of our area's Columbus Day Storm of 1962. Many among us probably don't even realize that this event was far more ferocious than the so-called "Storm of the Century" that ravaged our country's eastern seaboard in 1993 or even the 2011 "Halloween Nor'easter" immortalized in the book and film "The Perfect Storm."

Frantic call from sister

That afternoon my sister calls us from Salem, where she is attending Willamette University. She is frantic. She is crying. "Are you guys alright?" she asks my mother between sobs.

My sister explains how "a hurricane" had just hit there. Roofs had been torn off buildings. Big trees were uprooted. She had even seen classmates with their heads bandaged from severe injuries. Right about then, the phone goes dead.

My mother quickly relays this news to my father. "It sounds like a bad wind storm could be coming," she tells him. "We could lose our electricity. We better get some firewood into the house."

"Oh," pooh-poohed my dad, "a little wind never hurt anybody." (For the rest of his life, this poor man will be reminded — again and again — of his infamous 100% wrong retort.)

Surprise attack

You need to remember our reality that day way back in 1962 when I was 12-years-old.

We didn't have the internet. We didn't have social media. We didn't have cellular phones. We didn't have National Weather Service satellites spewing early warnings on dangerous approaching weather disasters. My gosh, we didn't even have 24-hour cable news.

It wasn't until a few days later — once the fatal damage was done — that we would learn about how this storm had started in the Pacific Ocean 500 miles south of Wake Island. It was originally known as Typhoon Freda. As Freda moved north, she became re-energized by a combination of unusual meteorological conditions, eventually amassing the force of a Category 3 hurricane (packing up to 130 mph winds).

This massive cyclone system struck Northern California first then — without warning — raced up into the western portions of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia.

This surprise attack windstorm smacked into Cape Blanco along the southern Oregon coast with wind gusts in excess of 145 miles per hour. Along the northern Oregon coast, the Mount Hebo radar station reported 170 mile-per-hour winds. Corvallis was blasted with winds in excess of 127 miles per hour. In downtown Portland, at the Morrison Street Bridge wind gauge, relentless winds reached 116 miles per hour.

Vicious riptides of wind

About an hour after my sister's call, all the trees around our house begin to shake and bow. Swirling screams of wind begin to attack our house and slam against our windows. Everywhere around us, large tree branches start snapping off.

Along our dead-end street — now, it seems, somewhat ironically named "Underwood Drive" — most of the homes have huge, towering Douglas firs in their yards, vestiges of the wild forest that once thrived here. The Harpoles, our neighbors directly across the street, have five or six big-trunked Doug firs that all rise 150 feet or more up into the sky, into the wind.

Stunned and amazed, we peer out our windows. It is snowing pieces of trees. Very quickly, our lawn, our street, and all of the adjacent lawns, are covered in a knee-high green sea of wind-broken fir branches. All of the standing Doug firs that encircle us violently bang against each other in these vicious riptides of wind.

Put on my football helmet

I'll never forget looking out our living room window to see the roof of Mumford's carport suddenly yank up into the sky, spin a few times like some giant Frisbee, then fly across the cul-de-sac and crash through the McKay's front picture window.

I run down the hall to my bedroom, grab my football helmet, and put it on.

We have no electricity or telephone service. (It will be more than two weeks before such amenities will return.) As the sun goes down, the brute force brunt of the storm seems to subside. But maverick wind gusts still terrorize us.

Our main concern now turns to that family across the street. The Harpole parents, along with their three youngest preschool-aged children, are away in Montana visiting relatives. Their seven other children — yes, this family has 10 kids — who range in age from 7 to 19 are home alone, with Joan, the oldest teenage daughter, in charge.

They certainly hadn't planned for a hurricane. My mother says that she needs to get over there and make sure that everyone is OK.

My dad, who survived two years of intense combat in the Philippine jungles during World War II, says he'll do it. But his wife, always the protective and nurturing mom, says she needs to be the one to reassure this brood of brothers and sisters that they are going to be all right.

So, the mid-sized woman who never learned to swim, is gravely afraid of water and heights, known to be a perpetual, white-knuckled back-seat driver, puts on her coat and goulashes, grabs a flashlight, and darts off alone into the treacherous night.

(Those neighbor children, all grown up now, still remember their relief and rekindled optimism when my mother's smile suddenly appears inside their frightened candlelight. Like Bob Hope visiting the troops, she informs them how her son won't take off his football helmet, which gets a hearty, welcome laugh.)

Their family and our family are lucky. No big trees crash into our homes. However, two or three homes on our street are hit by huge conifers. Fortunately, no one is injured.

On that ill-fated tragic day, a total of 53,000 Oregon and Washington homes are damaged. In the Portland area, 16,000 trees are blown down.

Everyone who lived here in 1962 and survived that long, unexpected nightmare of Oct. 12 has a survivor's story. May we never forget the 46 souls in Oregon and Washington that day who didn't live to tell us theirs.

Longtime mountain resident and former Sandy Post editor Paul Keller pens his "Beneath Wy'east" column once a month here on the Post's editorial pages.


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