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Severe Winter Storms

"Big Blow" of October 12, 1962 - Photo courtesy of NOAA

The Columbus Day Storm of 1962
Touted as the Nation’s strongest non-tropical wind storm ever, the Columbus Day Storm of 1962 produced winds of 150 mph – category 4 hurricane force winds – that buffeted western Oregon and Washington coasts claiming 46 lives and injuring hundreds more. The power was knocked out for several million people and thousands of homes, schools and businesses were damaged or destroyed.

Wind storms that produce winds of at least 70 mph occur at least every decade in western Oregon and Washington. Seven major wind storms have occurred in Western Washington since 1945. The Tacoma Narrows Bridge (1940) and Hood Canal Bridge (1979) were blown down during two of these storms. Some other severe winter wind storms in Washington’s history include The Great Olympic Blow-down of 1921, The Twin Wind Storms of November 1981 and The Inaugurations Day wind storm of 1993.

These storms produce downed trees and power lines, power outages and blowing debris. Falling trees and blowing debris cause most storm fatalities.

The Holiday Blast of 1996-1997
Known as the Holiday Blast of 1996-1997 this storm was a series of three weather systems that included severe snow and ice followed by quick melting and runoff, causing flooding and landslides.

On December 26th, 1996 eight inches or more of snow fell on most areas in the Puget Sound area. Cross state highways and passes were closed; the Greyhound bus line cancelled all trips going east over the Cascades for days. Garbage collection was postponed for a week. Sea-Tac airport did not close, but was affected by numerous flight cancellations and delays influenced by airport closures up and down the west coast. Puget Power reports 122,000 customers lost power.

December 27th, 1996 more snow and ice fell over the Puget Sound area. Trees fell, power lines were severed affecting traffic lights and gas station pumps. The Tacoma Narrows bridge was closed due to the dangers of icicles falling off suspension cables.

December 29th, 1996 heavy rains fell on more than a foot of accumulated snow. The heavy wet snow caused carports and marina roofs to collapse; 270 boats in an Edmonds marina were sunk. In Woodinville, the roof of a horse arena collapsed; fortunately, no people or animals were injured. Floating homes were listing, some taking in water. Interstate 5 closed southbound and was restricted to one lane northbound due to flooding as a result of ice clogged storm drains.

December 30th, 1996 the flooding continued. Roads began to collapse and the Shoreline sinkhole opened up. Many residents were evacuated from their homes. All three mountain passes remained closed.

December 31st, 1996, severe winds blew in, causing additional power outages. Flooding continued and mudslides became more prevalent. Magnolia’s Perkins Lane reported its first home knocked off its foundation. Raw sewage raised health concerns in Seattle, Bothell, Redmond, Auburn and other areas where storm drains were connected to sewer systems.

January 1st through the 3rd, 1997, landslides and flooding continued to be the primary hazards. A Burlington Northern train derailed near Edmonds when land on the bluff above it gave way; the Magnolia bridge was damaged.

The effects of this storm were still taking their toll as late as January 19th, 1997 when a family of four died in a mudslide on Bainbridge Island when their house was pushed into Puget Sound.

The general effects of most severe local storms are immobility and loss of utilities. Transportation routes can get blocked, travelers and commuters can get stranded, and families can be separated. Additionally, because electrical lines are damaged, other utilities such as telephone systems (cell and land lines), natural gas, water and sewer systems can become inoperable. Physical damage to homes and facilities can occur from wind damage, accumulation of snow, ice, and hail from accompanying winds. Even a small accumulation of snow can wreak havoc on transportation systems due to a lack of snow clearing equipment and experienced drivers.

Adapted from official statements of the National Weather Service Staff
as well as local and state Emergency Management officials.


Winter Storm Safety
What to Do When a Winter Storm Approaches

Winter Safety Kits
Are You Prepared for the Next Severe Winter Storm?

Winter Storm Warnings