Grant Keltner

The Columbus Day Storm

“The Columbus Day Storm” By Grant Keltner

It was Thursday October 11, 1962. I was four years old. It was an exciting time for Portland, Oregon. The annual football game between University of Oregon and University of Washington was scheduled to be played at Portland’s Civic Stadium. My mother was an alumnus of University of Washington and had planned on going to the game with friends from Seattle. Kick off was Saturday afternoon.

Mom got off work that night. She decided to pick me up at the Montessori school that I attended and drive me over to her parents’ house in Vancouver. I was going to spend the night and the weekend with my grandparents. My mother had a 1962 Volkswagen back then. It was a great car and it got her around to almost every place she needed to go.

We arrived at my grandparents’. Mom dropped me off and headed back to Portland. She often would leave me with my grandparents. I loved the attention they gave me. The next day was Friday October 12, 1962, Columbus Day. It was fairly clear, a typical fall day. Nothing indicated that we were heading for anything unusual with the weather. Mom worked with Pan American airlines at the time.

That afternoon my mother’s office phone started to ring. The first call came in from Medford, Oregon. “There’s a terrible storm going through Medford. It’s headed your way Shirley!” shouted my mother’s friend over the phone. My mother didn’t pay much attention to his call. She thought he was joking.

When she received the second phone call from a friend in Roseburg, she began to worry. “Shirley we’re in the middle of a terrible storm!” exclaimed the voice at the other end of the phone.

Suddenly one of her fellow employees yelled, “Look out the window!” The clouds were a dark mustard color and they were moving fast! The manager at her office ordered everyone to leave as quickly as possible. She ran down the street to her car; glass was flying everywhere. She got home as soon as she could. By that time, the wind had reached one hundred miles an hour.

I had been playing in my grandmother’s yard most of the day. My grandma was listening to the local weather forecast over the radio when the wind started to pick up, my grandma looked concerned. “Grant, get in the house. Time for dinner!” demanded my grandmother.

I came running in. It was close to 5:00 p.m. About halfway through dinner, the neighbor kids from across the street tried to walk up the sidewalk along the west side of my grandparent’s house. The wind was blowing from the north. They were walking with great difficulty just trying to get up the street; their bodies leaned into the wind as they plodded through the storm. They waved at us as we sat at the kitchen table. We waved back and laughed.

“This looks like a bad storm!” my grandma exclaimed. Within a few minutes shingles started to fly through the air and dirt whipped up forming small clouds along the street. Leaves rushed by the kitchen window.

My grandpa got up from the table. “I’m going to close the garage door and make sure everything is locked tight. This looks like it’s going to be rough.” He went out the back door, down the path that led to the garage door. His hat flew off his head and he ran through the yard trying to snatch it up. He rushed into the garage to make sure everything was turned off and shut tight. He hustled back inside.

My grandma turned on her radio and located the local news. “Storm warnings for the Portland and Vancouver area. Heavy winds expected throughout the night!” reported the newscaster. You could hear the alarm in his voice.

I ran to the couch in the living room. It had a picture perfect view of the north side of the house. Tree limbs started to fly through the air; debris bounced off the windows. The sky was getting darker by the minute.

“I’m going to call your mother Grant!” exclaimed my grandma. I could tell she was worried. Thankfully, we reached my mother over the phone. She had made it home to her apartment in Northwest Portland.

“A car rolled over in front of me on the Morrison Bridge!” exclaimed my mother. It was luck that my mother had dropped me off at my grandparents the night before.

All of a sudden, the lights in the house went out and the street lights went black. I couldn’t see the neighbor’s kitchen lights, the winds really started to gust and we lost radio reception. We could hear tree limbs breaking. Loud crashing of metal and glass filled the air. Transformers popped and crackled as the fuses blew out. The sounds outside reminded me of big kettle drums throbbing in the night.

My grandma looked at my grandpa. “Let’s get downstairs!” I could tell she was concerned. Grandma was from Iowa, raised on a farm. She had experienced tornados as a little girl. She knew that in a storm like this, it was best to head for the basement or storm cellar. My grandparents had a huge basement with a brick fireplace. There was a big upright piano along with a large couch, chairs, tables and plenty of room to sleep through the storm.

By this time, it was close to 8:00 p.m. We had lost all power, lost reception with the radio and had no hot water. My grandpa had plenty of flashlights and a lot of candles. We built a fire in the fireplace. You could hear the wind make eerie sounds as it traveled down the chimney. It took longer than usual to light the fire in the fireplace.

I was scared, started to cry, and grandma calmed me down. She made sure we would have everything we needed to make it through the night. The wind raged outside. We knew we were in for a long night. The house was rocking in the wind.

My grandma made a good spot for me on the couch, covered me up with a blanket and started to sing lullabies as I started to drift off to sleep. “Sha la la…sha la la la…Sha la la la…la la la…,” her voice soothed my worry.

My grandma’s cat, Herkimer, found a good spot alongside me to warm himself. It was almost 10:00 p.m. The storm didn’t sound like it was going to end anytime soon and I fell asleep. Grandpa stayed up most of the night. Grandma dozed off and on. I can remember waking up once or twice listening as the wind shook the house, rattling the windows, tugging at the roof. The fire in the fireplace glowed and illuminated my grandpa as he sat next to the fireplace trying to read a newspaper. I fell back asleep. The storm carried on through the night. It didn’t stop until well into the next morning.

I woke up around 6:00 a.m. Grandma was up in the kitchen, I rushed off the couch and ran upstairs to see what kind of damage the storm had left behind. My grandpa was out in front of the house, talking with neighbors. He waved to me as I looked out the living room window.

It was a beautiful morning, clear as could be. The sun was bright, dew was on the lawn and debris was everywhere. The house across the street had a tree that had flown through the roof. Tree limbs were in our yard and power lines were down in the backyard. A car parked across the street had its windows blown out. Shrubs were huddled up against the north side of my grandpa’s house. The neighborhood was in shambles.

“You stay inside!” ordered grandma. We didn’t have power, phone service, hot water, or a newspaper. We couldn’t receive radio broadcasts and the television was out. The only way we could get news was through word of mouth through our neighbors. Reports started to trickle in. Winds had been reported at close to one hundred and ten miles an hour. Wide spread damage had occurred to most of the Portland/Vancouver area. Power outages were reported and phone service was going to take days to repair. The Governors of both Washington and Oregon had declared state of emergency.

Many families lost everything. Roofs flew off homes, windows shattered, telephone poles crashed through homes. My grandpa tried to assess the damage to his home. Shingles were lost, drain pipes had disconnected off the sides of his house, gutters were torn from the roof line, and a few shrubs were uprooted. A downed power line had fallen and draped itself over the hedge in the back yard.

Grandma started to pull eggs, bacon and butter from the refrigerator. She grabbed a big black frying pan out of the kitchen cabinet and headed downstairs. My grandpa followed her with Herkimer at his side. Grandpa added wood to the fire; the fire had been burning all night long. We were going to cook breakfast in the fireplace…just like real cowboys!

She melted the butter in the pan, holding it over the fire. She threw bacon in and it started to sizzle. It smelled so good! She turned the bacon over a few times and soon it was well on its way to being crispy brown. Next she tossed in the eggs, cooking them over easy, not taking too long to cook in the bacon grease.

We sat by the fire and talked about the storm. “I figure it will take close to three or four weeks to get things back to normal,” my grandpa said. ”The roads are blocked. Electrical lines are down. I’ve never seen such a storm!” he added. “We need to stay put and just ride this out.” You could see the worry on his face.

We finished breakfast and went back upstairs. Several neighbors started to show up, some of them looked in disbelief as they wound their way through the damage. A large group of people congregated on the street corner. My grandpa went out to discuss the situation. “Does anybody need help?” asked a neighbor. “We need help, we don’t have a roof, we don’t have food!” cried one poor soul.

Everybody pitched in to help those hit hardest by the storm. It was a true community undertaking. Flashlights were exchanged, candles passed out and blankets found their way to those that needed them. Food was rounded up. Groups of men were organized to help cut through the destruction.

I stayed inside and watched as my grandma tried to get the radio to work. No luck. My grandpa came back inside the house. “Two roofs are gone down the street. Power lines are down on at least three or four streets,” he said.

My grandpa went outside and started to clean up the yard, raking shingles off the lawn and reattaching gutters. The awnings on the west side of the house had been blown off, some of them ripped apart. A truck started to make its way up the street, weaving through yards, trying to get through the maze of destruction. You could hear chain saws as they cut through the trees that had fallen. It was going to take weeks to repair the damage.

That night we cooked dinner over the fire in the fireplace. Grandma was cooking hot dogs and beans. We ate like kings. She played the upright piano, singing songs as we ate. Candles glowed on the table. I remember wishing that we could always eat over a fire. I went to bed that night feeling comforted knowing the storm had passed.

The next day the local power companies showed up and tried to repair downed power lines. Insurance agents started knocking on the door, asking about damage, taking pictures and writing notes.

My grandpa decided that I could take a look at the damage that occurred in the neighborhood. Grandma threw a jacket on me and pulled a stocking cap over my head. I grabbed my grandpa’s hand and we walked out the back door. We crossed the street, stepping over and around the path of destruction the storm had caused. Trees were uprooted, limbs had punched holes in windows, and shingles were everywhere. As we headed a few blocks down the street our mouths dropped as we looked at a house that didn’t have its roof attached. The roof was lying out on the street. Workers tried to saw through the roof, salvaging anything they could.

We reached the end of the street. The worst of the damage was a tree that had fallen through a home located at the end of West Lavina. A huge oak had caved in the entire second story of the home. I couldn’t believe the severity and intensity of the storm.

We made our way back to my grandpa’s house. My grandma was in the living room playing with her portable radio. It was working! We started to receive news about the storm, the damage done; and the lives that had been lost. It had been a deadly storm.

Grandpa went back out in the yard. Neighbors lent him a helping hand with the heavier chores. My grandma made dinner by the fireplace, my grandpa assisted with the cooking. A few neighbors that were low on food had dinner with us that night. Plans were made to help those less fortunate.

The next day power and hot water was restored. Grandpa’s hired hands showed up, many helping other neighbors with chores. My grandma made sandwiches and coffee for everybody that helped. It was a real team effort.

It finally took close to three weeks to clean up the neighborhood. Some of the more severe damage took months to repair. Several homes had to be rebuilt. It was one of the most intense storms I’ve ever experienced. Several families lost everything they had.

The Columbus Day Storm of 1962 (otherwise known as the Big Blow, which began as Typhoon Freda) was an extra tropical cyclone that ranked among the most intense to strike the United States. It roared through the Pacific Northwest, killing 38 people and causing damage estimated close to 200 million dollars.

The quintessential wind storm became the standard against which all other statewide disasters are now measured. Wind gusts reached 116 M.P.H. in downtown Portland, and 90 mph in Salem. Cities in Oregon and Washington lost power for two to three weeks and over 50,000 homes were damaged. On a larger scale, the Columbus Day Storm of 1962 is a contender for the title of most powerful extra tropical cyclone recorded in the U.S. in the 20th century.

I admired my grandparents for their pioneering spirit during the storm and the unity they displayed with neighbors. The community rallied to help those in need. It was one of the most memorable times in my life. I’ll never forget the Columbus Day Storm of 1962.

 

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