Hear the dramatic stories behind the storm of the century

(This article was published Oct. 15, 2019 by The Daily Herald newspaper.)

By Evan Thompson

Fifty-seven years ago Oct. 12, the mother of all windstorms walloped Snohomish County and the rest of the Northwest.

Packing wind speeds in the triple digits, the Columbus Day Storm killed 46 people in the Pacific Northwest, caused $230 million in damage ($1.7 billion in today’s dollars) and knocked down 15 billion board feet of timber —more than the annual harvest in Washington and Oregon at the time.

Feliks Banel, a historian with the Humanities Washington Speakers Bureau, will give a presentation on the region’s most infamous storms at 1:30 p.m. Oct. 17 at Marysville Library, 6120 Grove St., and at 2 p.m. Oct. 20 at Lynnwood Library, 19200 44th Ave. W.

The storm that began life as Typhoon Freda is the benchmark for what weather experts call extratropical cyclones.

And it’s an enduring source of fascination for historian Feliks Banel, whose parents hunkered down in their Kirkland home when the storm hit.

Banel, 51, of Seattle, will explore the Columbus Day Storm and other notable Northwest storms in presentations set for Oct. 17 at Marysville Library and Oct. 20 at the Lynnwood Library. He will share stories from survivors, archival photos and radio and television clips.

Here, Banel talks about his interest in extreme Northwest weather.

What led you to research devastating storms in the Pacific Northwest?

Stories about the Columbus Day Storm of Oct. 12, 1962, always made me kind of jealous for not having lived through that intense storm — I was born a few years later. Rose Hill in Kirkland, where I grew up, went several days without electricity. It had my dad stoking a fire in the fireplace, and my mom cooking for nine people on our old classic dark-green Colman camp stove. Humanities Washington chose me to be part of the speakers bureau and share these stories around the state and hear a bunch of new stories those who experienced it.

Tell me more about the Columbus Day Storm.

This was one of the biggest storms to ever strike the continental United States. The barometric pressure was extremely low and wind speeds were extremely high (an Air Force radar station in Pacific County recorded gusts at 160 mph). I’ve spoken to so many people who survived this storm and heard so many stories about hunkering down with family and waiting out the wind. Nearly 50 people were killed from Northern California to British Columbia. The winds blew down three times as much timber as was knocked down by Mount St. Helens in 1980. The storm also had long-lasting ramifications: All that blown-down timber helped create the timber export industry, which had major effects on the region for decades.

How did Snohomish County fare during the storm?

Fortunately, the storm got weaker as it worked its way north. Still, tens of thousands were without electricity, trees were down everywhere, and all kinds of events, like high school football games, were canceled that weekend.

What other terrible storms in Northwest history stand out?

The winter of 1861-1862 is probably the most fascinating, since the information available about it is slim compared to more recent storms. There are thought to be no photographs that exist of damage from the cold and snow in Oregon and in Washington Territory. That winter is notable for series of intense storms from early December to late February, for a massive loss of livestock and for deep cold. I’ve read that snow was still unmelted in the shade in Walla Walla as late as June.

What led you to become a Northwest historian?

My four older brothers often let me tag along to drive somewhere and look at some artifact or relic from local history — from abandoned buildings to old railroad bridges to caves and mines all over the Puget Sound area.

That instilled a love of Northwest history. I’ve been a producer and host for KIRO Radio on matters of Northwest history and culture for many years.

I’m the editor of Columbia, the quarterly magazine of the Washington State Historical Society. I also served as deputy director of the Museum of History Industry from 1999 to 2006, and have continued to work with MOHAI on number local history and archival projects. In 2009, I created the history series “This NOT Just In” for KUOW.

What are your favorite subjects to research?

I’m drawn to stories about survival, especially when I can speak with an actual survivor, rather than only read second-hand accounts or talk to people with some connection. This means I’ve done far too many stories about plane crashes, shipwrecks and natural disasters. I’m not glib about loss of life or injury, or loss of property, but I have a lot of natural curiosity about how people survive and then recover from adversity.

I like to see people getting credit for things they did that made the community a better place, and that they may have never gotten credit for or, gotten credit so long ago, most people have forgotten). A few years ago, I tracked down and profiled a group of former North Seattle neighbors who were responsible for creating the Burke-Gilman Trail. I’ve been riding the trail almost my whole life, and I live near part of it now and use it all the time on foot and on my bike. Before I did the story, I had no idea how it had been created, and it made me feel so good to meet the people, to thank them personally and to tell their story on KIRO Radio and on the Seattle Channel.

Tell me about a favorite Snohomish County historical nugget.

Several years ago, I tracked down a Braniff Airlines employee who survived crash-landing of a brand new Boeing 707 jetliner way back in 1959 not far from Oso. The story is almost completely forgotten. I was shocked when I actually spoke with the man on the phone and he told me his terrifying tale of the final minutes of that flight.