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Oregon's Top 10 Weather Events of the 1900s

Editor's Note: As the century draws to a close, staff at the National Weather Service offices in Oregon have reviewed records of major weather events to affect the state over the past 100 years. Based on impacts to people, property and the economy, National Weather Service has chosen the top ten weather-related events to impact Oregon in ascending order. Choosing among the numerous 20th century weather events was a difficult task. And many of the events did not impact just this state alone. These events were widespread, impacting other parts of Western United States. You will also note that most of the larger events are recent. This is due to the fact that record keeping has improved in the latter half of the century, while urbanization in the state has increased the economic impacts of severe storms and floods.

This information is taken from the National Weather Service pages in September, 2008.

Extreme Cold in February 1933

A cold outbreak brought a surge of Arctic air into the state. The city of Seneca and in Ukiah, in northeast Oregon, both recorded the state's all-time record low temperature of -54 degrees F. The next day it was nearly 100 degrees warmer when the high reached 45 degrees.

Tornado of June 11, 1968, in Wallowa County

This storm struck in very mountainous, unihabited timbered area. Very few persons witnessed the tornado, and those persons were in poor position to actually observed the tornado. Determination as a tornado is based largely on width of the path and appearance of wreckage it caused. Approximately 1,800 acres of prime timber were destroyed, with an additional 1,200 acres badly damaged. An estimated 40 million board feet of lumber were blown down. The storm lasted no more than 5 minutes at any observed point and was accompanied briefly by golfball-sized hail. The storm occurred around 4 pm and had a ground path of about eight to ten miles and nearly 2 miles wide.

January 1950 Snowstorms

January, 1950, was a very cold month statewide, with freqent snowstorms. For the state as a whole, snow was the heaviest during this January than ever before since the beginning of weather record keeping, which began in 1890. For some areas, the heaviest one-day snowfall was reported during the first few days of the month, while for others the heaviest one-day snowfall occurred during the last few days. For most locations, the heaviest occurred during the period of January 9 through the 18th. Actually, there were three storms, but very little time separated them. Their net effect was a nearly continuous storm. On the 13th, snow was accompanied by high winds, creating widespread blowing and drifting of snow. Deep snow drifts closed all highways west of the Cascades and through the Columbia River Gorge. A very severe sleet storm began around noon on the 18th. Within hours sleet piled up to depths of 4 to 5 inches in northwestern Oregon. During the night of the 18th, the sleet turned to freezing rain, and created much havoc on highways, trees, and power lines. Hundreds of motorists were stranded in the Columbia River Gorge. The stranded motorists had to be rescued by train, though even all rail traffic had considerable difficulty and many delays in getting through the Gorge. Freezing rain downed many trees and power lines, creating widespread power outages across northwestern Oregon. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage occurred.

Western Oregon January, 1950, Snowfall Totals:
Western Oregon Location January Total Snowfall
Albany 54.7 inches
Astoria Agricultural Station 39.4 inches
Bandon 6.0 inches
Brookings 6.0 inches
Clatskanie 68.5 inches
Corvallis 52.0 inches
Cottage Grove dam 121.0 inches
Detroit dam 122.0 inches
Estacada 31.0 inches
Eugene 36.0 inches
Falls City 78.0 inches
Forest Grove 59.0 inches
Gold Beach 3.0 inches
Hillsboro 42.4 inches
Leaburg 50.0 inches
Marion Forks 196.0 inches
McMinnville 47.0 inches
Medford 20.1 inches
Molalla 30.0 inches
Newport 6.2 inches
North Bend 2.5 inches
Oregon City 34.0 inches
Otis 20.0 inches
Portland Airport 41.0 inches
Portland downtown 32.9 inches
Powers 18.1 inches
Prospect 87.5 inches
Reedsport 5.0 inches
Riddle 42.9 inches
Roseburg 28.0 inches
Salem 32.8 inches
Santiam Pass 128.5 inches
Sexton Summit 73.9 inches
Three Links 96.0 inches
Tillamook 18.9 inches
Timberline Lodge 224 inches
Troutdale 36.7 inches

Eastern Oregon January, 1950, Snowfall Totals:
Eastern Oregon Location January Total Snowfall
Antelope 40.0 inches
Baker City 24.4 inches
Bend 56.5 inches
Burns 31.9 inches
Cascade Locks 92.5 inches
Condon 43.1 inches
Crater Lake 136.0 inches
Dufur 18.0 inches
Enterprise 30.8 inches
Fossil 49.3 inches
Fremont 49.2 inches
Granite 80.0 inches
Grizzly 42.5 inches
Hart Mountain Wildlife Refuge 25.5 inches
Heppner 36.5 inches
Hood River 93.8 inches
Klamath Falls 56.5 inches
Klamath Falls airport 38.1 inches
La Grande 42.0 inches
Madras 28.0 inches
Meacham 41.8 inches
Mitchell 25.8 inches
Moro 54.0 inches
Ochoco Ranger Station 67.7 inches
Odell Lake East 134.0 inches
Ontario 17.0 inches
Parkdale 138.5 inches
Pendleton 41.6 inches
Prineville 24.0 inches
Redmond 36.0 inches
Redmond airport 28.8 inches
Rome 8.1 inches
The Dalles 76.0 inches
Umatilla 24.8 inches
Union 24.8 inches
Unity 19.0 inches
Wickiup dam near Sunriver 68.3 inches

Severe Thunderstorm of July 9, 1995, in north central Oregon

A supercell thunderstorm that developed near Redmond traveled nearly 200 miles before dissipating. It produced baseball-sized hail in cities from Condon to Hermiston. Nearly every vehicle in Hermiston was damaged by hail. The local watermelon crop, on the verge of harvest, was a complete loss. The storm spawned flash floods, damaging winds, and even a brief tornado. The National Weather Service's new Doppler radar tracked the storm and allowed forecasters to provide ample warning. There were no fatalities, but damages to crops, structures, and property were in the tens of millions of dollars.

Floods of February, 1996

In early February, 1996, four days of heavy rain began after a period of extended, bitter cold. Low-level snow packs released up to 10 inches of water in as little as 48 hours. Five people died and nearly every Oregon county received a disaster declaration. Region-wide damage estimates exceeded one billion dollars. Thousands were sheltered and hundreds of homes were destroyed. The City of Portland erected a makeshift flood barrier to prevent flood waters from moving into the downtown area.

Floods of December, 1964, to January, 1965

The December, 1964, rainstorm was undoubtedly the most severe rainstorm to ever occur over central Oregon, and among the most severe over western Oregon since the late 1870s. Several observing stations across central Oregon recorded two-thirds of their normal annual rainfall in just 5 days. Scores of stations set new records for both 24-hour totals and December monthly rainfall totals. Widespread severe flooding occurred, with at least 30 major highway bridges receiving such damage as to make them unuseable! The new John Day multi-million dollar bridge was destroyed as were scores of bridges on county and secondary roads. Hundreds of miles of roads and highways were washed out or badly damaged. Thousands of people had to be evacuated due to ensuing floods. The Willamette River at downtown Portland had a stage of 29.8 feet. This was a record high for the winter season, and was within inches of the peak stage during the Columbia River spring flood of 1948. Hundreds of homes and other buildings were destroyed and an even greater number were badly damaged. .Heavy snow followed by persistent heavy rains lead to record flooding in Oregon during the later half of December, 1964, and January, 1965. In all, 17 people died. Virtually every river in the state was far above flood stage and mudslides, bridge failures, and inundation closed the state's roads, airports, and railways. Reservoirs were overwhelmed early on in the storm and many proved unable to release water fast enough to prevent overtopping. Dorena Dam, south of Eugene had water flowing over the top more than 8 feet deep.

December, 1964, rainfall totals and the normal rainfall for December (units are inches):
Location Normal December Rainfall December, 1964, Rainfall
Albany 6.75 12.55
Arlington 1.33 6.87 (new December record)
Ashland 6.74 11.28 (new December record)
Bend 1.73 8.74 (new December record)
Crater Lake 11.69 38.47 (new December record)
Detroit 12.83 30.86 (new December record)
Eugene 6.61 20.99 (new December record)
Falls City 13.83 27.05
Government Camp 12.78 28.62
Grants Pass 5.52 16.06 (new December record)
Heppner 1.38 4.40 (new December record)
Illahe 16.76 41.43 (new December record)
Lakeview 1.88 8.96 (new December record)
Medford 3.38 12.72 (new December record)
Newport 11.02 20.94 (new December record)
Pendleton 1.49 3.23
Portland, downtown 7.42 11.45
Portland, airport 6.38 9.97
Reedsport 11.94 22.01
The Dalles 2.36 9.05 (new December record)
Valsetz 22.27 40.25 (new December record)

The Tillamook Wildfire Burns of August, 1933 (and again in 1939, 1945, and 1951)

An unusually hot, dry summer set the stage for this incredible environmental disaster. On August 14, 1933, a fire ignited during a logging operation in the Coast Range of NW Oregon. It quickly spread to 40,000 acres in just two days. The blaze was initially battled by 1,800 fire fighters. Ten days later, dry and strong east winds fanned the flames to a quarter million acres in just 20 hours. The fire was phenomenally powerful, burning in huge, ancient stands of old growth Douglas Fir timber. Some of the trees were five centuries old. The flaming front of the fire was 18 miles long and illuminated the night skies for scores of miles. A smoke column 8 miles high carried ash out to sea where it fell on ships as far as 500 miles away from the coastline. Oregon beaches had ash and cinders 2 feet deep for a stretch of 30 miles. The fire burned uncontrolled until moist, west winds helped decrease its intensity. A week later, wetting rain halted the spread, but the smoldering continued. In subsequent years the unconsumed fuel burned again and again. These fires were also devastating, but never equaled the appalling spectacle of the first fire. In totality, over 13 billion board feet of timber was killed. A little more than half was salvaged. The remainder could have provided enough wood to give every man, woman, and child in the USA a 20'long 2x6 stud.

Columbus Day Windstorm of October, 1962

A generation of Oregonians received searing memories that day. This quintessential windstorm became the standard against which all other statewide disasters are now measured. The storm killed 38 people and injured many more and did 170-200 million dollars in damage (over 800 million in today's dollars). Wind gusts reached 116 mph in downtown Portland. Cities lost power for 2 to 3 weeks and over 50,000 dwellings were damaged. Agriculture took a devastating blow as an entire fruit and nut orchards were destroyed. Scores of livestock were killed as barns collapsed or trees were blown over on the animals. In fact, the amount of trees blown down during the Columbus Day storm was nearly 15 times that blown down by the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens.

Wind Speeds of the Columbus Day 1962 Storm:
Location Strongest Wind Speed
Astoria Sustained 44 mph, peak gust of 96 mph
Newport Peak gust of 138 mph before wind instrument was damaged
Mt Hebo radar site Unofficial wind gust of 130 mph.
North Bend Peak gust of 81 mph
Portland, Airport frequent gusts 88 mph, with peak wind gust of 104 mph (estimated since power was lost)
Portland, Downtown Peak wind gust of 93 mph
Morrison Bridge, Portland Peak wind gust of 116 mph
Hillsboro Peak wind gust of 90 mph
Troutdale Sustained wind of 66 mph, peak gust 106 mph
Salem Sustained wind of 58 mph, peak gust 90 mph
Corvallis Peak wind gust of 127 mph at the airport
Eugene Sustained wind of 63 mph, peak gust of 86 mph
Roseburg Peak wind gust of 62 mph
Medford Peak wind gust of 58 mph
Klamath Falls Peak wind gust of 65 mph
Lakeview Peak wind gust of 58 mph
Redmond Peak wind gust of 47 mph
The Dalles Peak wind gust of 29 mph
Pendleton Peak wind gust of 42 mph

May, 1948, Vanport Flood of north Portland

A city of 20,000 situated near the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers in Northwest Oregon was put under 15 feet of water in just two hours when a dike holding back the snow melt swollen Columbia River failed. The dike was thought to be impervious and well-constructed. About 25 lives were lost and 10,000 homes and their contents were destroyed. Evacuation was hampered because a single road was the only route out of the disaster area. The city of Vanport ceased to exist that day. It was eventually replaced by an race track and a golf course.

Deadly Flash Flood on June 14, 1903, at Heppner, Oregon

This was surely the most deadly natural disaster in Oregon's recorded history. A strong thunderstorm, accompanied by extremely heavy rain and hail, moved near Heppner, Oregon. The storm covered a very small area, probably no more than 50 square miles. Heavy rain fell in a very short time, creating severe flash flooding along Willow Creek, normally a peaceful stream flowing through the town center. The entire town was swept away in just a few short minutes, drowning nearly 247 people. Eyewitnesses say thunderstorm rains arrived as a 40-foot wall of water and the ensuing flood raged through town for over an hour. In all, one-third of the towns' structures were wiped out. The massive runoff of water was a result of heavy rain falling on the barren rocky hills, then flowing into the Willow Creek watershed. Only fifteen minutes separated the first rainwater in Willow Creek at Heppner and the flood crest! There are no rainfall records available for this storm because the weather observing station was completely destroyed, drowning the observer and his entire family.

A similar fate would have been in store for the citizens of Ione, just 20 miles downstream. However, telephoned warnings prompted an immediate evacuation and residents escaped to high ground. At least 150 homes were destroyed at Ione and bodies were washed more than 40 miles downstream to the Columbia River.

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