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Northeast History: Tornadoes, Then & Now

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by Margaret O’Hartigan, King Neighbor

Northeast residents got an unexpected visitor July 1 when a weak tornado blew through around 5:30 p.m. Although the National Weather Service subsequently claimed the tornado first touched down near 8th and Wygant, the trail of broken trees actually began near Mallory and Sumner, the funnel cloud bouncing up a hundred feet and hopping over MLK before landing again near King School.

 I was at home on Garfield Avenue, sitting on my front porch, when the twister struck, blowing rain and grit parallel to the ground, while smaller trees were doubled over. Having already been through 4 tornadoes back in Minnesota, I knew exactly what was happening.

As far as reminders of nature’s power goes, it was pretty good – no fatalities, no injuries and no serious damage to property.

Northeast Portland has a history of escaping relatively unscathed from natural disasters that inflicted far worse on other parts of Portland or the state as a whole.

The biggest wind to hit Oregon in the past century – the Columbus Day storm of 1962 – killed 24 people and caused $170,000,000 in damages, with Multnomah County alone suffering $1,700,000 in damages. Estimated to have peaked in Portland at 116 mph, the storm’s winds tore down the Peninsula Park swimming pool’s wall, broke ships loose from their moorings at Swan Island, and destroyed horse barns at Portland Meadows. The St. John’s suspension bridge swayed 15 feet. Trees and chimneys were toppled.

469,000 homes in western Oregon were without power – and it was the resultant darkness that led to the only death in Northeast Portland, when 37-year-old Harold Morrison fell 17 feet in the Lloyd Center parking lot as he attempted to locate his auto.

“Nature just seemed to have it in for Portland that autumn.”

Damage to the electrical grid was so extensive that it took 2 weeks to restore power throughout Portland, and even longer to restore all telephone service.

Even after electrical service was restored, power kept going out throughout Northeast Portland over the next several months as a direct result of the storm. On November 11, approximately 300 customers of Pacific Power & Light lost electricity when a telephone pole at Rodney and Killingsworth dropped a storm-weakened cross-arm. Branches – and entire trees – continued to fall onto power lines. 

Nature just seemed to have it in for Portland that autumn. On the evening of Monday, November 5, an earthquake centered 10 miles south of Portland knocked down chimneys throughout Northeast Portland. And a windstorm on November 19 caused additional trees — damaged but not downed by the Columbus Day storm – to topple over, according to Portland’s Commissioner of Public Works, William A. Bowes.

But there were lighter moments to the storm, as well. As recounted in Betty Plude’s 2011 “Columbus Day Storm Memories”, then-6-year-old Joe Fulton walked home from class at St. Andrew’s Elementary School just as the storm was breaking. After getting to the family home on the corner of 11th & Shaver, Joe launched a paper airplane from the porch – and before going inside, stripped down to his shorts, entering the house with the pronouncement that the wind had blown the rest of his clothes off!