SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

 An ‘Unremarkable Storm’

But Ketchikan residents remember
Thanksgiving Day Storm of 1968



November 23, 2018
Friday PM

(SitNews) Ketchikan, Alaska - According to the National Weather Service it wasn't even that unusual of a storm.

On November 28, 1968, the weather service on Annette Island - where Ketchikan's main airport was in those days - was recording sustained winds of 60 mph and gusts in the upper 70s. Just about once a year, the Ketchikan area gets a storm with hurricane force winds, 74 mph and up.

Locals like to joke that Alaskans don't even bother to name their hurricanes. They just call them "Last Thursday."

But even a half century later, Ketchikan residents vividly remember the Thanksgiving Day Storm of 1968 and not just because the heavy winds delayed Thanksgiving dinner for hours and in some cases days.

Even the Weather Service concedes that its storm measurements for Ketchikan were different than Annette, even if it offers no specific level. The report on that day noted that Ketchikan "likely had sustained winds above 80, at least one gust into the low 90s."

In a regional update later in the week, NOAA termed the storm, which had lashed communities up and down the Inside Passage, as “strong but unremarkable.”

Most of the Ketchikan residents who lived through it would beg to differ. 

Thanksgiving Day Storm Damage - 1968 - Ketchikan, Alaska
No names for the people in the photo provided.
Photo Courtesy Patrick Bryant ©

Sometime between 8 am and 10 am Thanksgiving morning, the main gusts roared into the First City, causing significant damage. In Ward Cove, an amateur's anemometer at the Pulp Mill recorded a gust of 115 miles per hour before it stopped working. At the Coast Guard base, another anemometer disintegrated after spinning at 125 mph.

This was no run of the mill November windstorm.

More than a half a dozen boats capsized in the harbors, hundreds of homes were damaged, many by debris the size of plywood sheets flying through the air. Several businesses were damaged. The drive-up awning at the Toot and Tell Restaurant was blown completely across Tongass Avenue. At least one vehicle at a West End car dealer was blown into the road and several blocks down the street. One of Ketchikan's largest boat yards, Northern Marine Works, partially caved in near Bar Harbor.

Most notably, three of Ketchikan's 300-foot communication towers - one downtown and two in the West End completely collapsed.

"A Ketchikan landmark since the 1930s disappeared at the height of Thursday's storm when the 300-foot KTKN tower toppled damaging neighboring houses on Inman Street," the Ketchikan Daily News reported the day after the storm. "Louis Tavares house was cut in two by the falling tower... the residence of H.H. Runnings was considered a total loss." 

Although people were in the houses when the KTKN tower fell on them, no one was seriously injured. The two Alaska Communications System towers on the West End that fell landed in vacant land nearby. The only tower to survive the wind was the larger White Alice tower that still exists today. KTKN eventually rebuilt the Inman Hill tower, but the two ACS towers - which had been standing for decades and were originally part of the local Marconi wireless station - were not replaced.

Thanksgiving Day Storm Damage - 1968 - Ketchikan, Alaska
Photo Courtesy Patrick Bryant ©

The storm – which originally thrashed Bellingham, Washington with 80 mph winds earlier in the week - reached Ketchikan around noon on Wednesday with gusts into the 40s. The winds remained in the 40s and 50s, overnight, but peaked between 8 am and 10 am Thanksgiving Day, with a single gust of 94 mph being recorded at the Annette Weather Service. By noon, the storm was mostly over in the Ketchikan area, but besides the damaged property it had also blown down numerous Ketchikan power lines and large swaths of trees in the region. Some neighborhoods were completely cut off for several days by downed trees and power lines on the roads.

It was the assessment of those tree blow downs, rather than the somewhat understated weather report, that painted a truer picture of the devastation brought by the 1968 storm.

Twenty years later, in 1989, A.S. Harris of the Forest Service published "Winds in the Forests of Southeast Alaska and Guides for Reducing Damage." In 1971-72, Harris had surveyed the forest land on Prince of Wales Island and several nearby islands. He found that the "blowdown" from the 1968 Thanksgiving Day storm was almost unprecendented in its destruction.

"One example of a storm producing extensive damage throughout southeast Alaska
occurred on Thanksgiving Day, November 28, 1968," Harris wrote two decades later. " As the storm approached southeast Alaska, the barometric pressure fell rapidly at Annette Island, reaching a low of 28.98 inches of mercury. Once the frontal system passed Annette Island, barometric pressure there rose quickly while the pressure at Sitka and Juneau continued to plunge and reached a low of 28.53 inHg at Juneau before frontal passage. The intensity of this storm was reflected by the rapid changes in barometric pressure recorded over relatively short distances; for example, barometric pressure at Juneau was still falling even after it started to rise at Sitka, about 100 miles southwest."

What did that mean for the forestland on Prince of Wales Island? Widespread swaths of blowdown.

“A total of 1,010 patches of partial or complete blowdown were identified; they ranged from 2 to 175 acres,” Harris wrote in 1989. "The blowdown identified occurred on 18,537 acres, or 1.6 percent of the area of productive forest land occupied by sawtimber. About 319 million board feet of timber was estimated to have blown down - about 1 percent of the net sawtimber volume in the study area. This figure is conservative because it includes only patches of about 2 acres and larger that were easily identifiable on aerial photos. Losses of individual trees or small groups were common but were not included."

Thanksgiving Day Storm Damage - 1968 - Ketchikan, Alaska
Photo Courtesy Patrick Bryant ©

In his report, Harris noted that it was unusual for a single storm to cause such damage and that the majority of the blow down was not - as is usually the case - in areas where logging and other activities had removed natural windbreaks. It was simply the case that the intensity of the storm was so high that it overwhelmed stands of timber that - in some cases - had survived other storms over the previous three to four centuries.

In December, Ketchikan Daily News estimated that damage was more than $2.5 million alone to the commercial properties and the towers. Numerous Ketchikan businesses and residences had windows blown out by the storm and dozens of properties had their roofs damaged.

Ketchikan Police Chief Hank Miller told the Ketchikan Daily News that it was amazing that no one was injured during the storm, especially in the areas where there were trees blown down. The Alaska State Troopers noted that nearly all the roads in the South Point Higgins area were blocked for several hours, either by downed electrical wires or trees. The South Tongass Highway was blocked for several hours because of trees blown down in the Rotary Beach area.

Ketchikan wasn't the only community to face strong winds that day. The Associated Press reported 80 mph winds in Juneau and Haines. At least five planes were damaged at the airports in both communities and air travel throughout the region was suspended for 24 hours. The state dock in Tenakee was destroyed by winds and waves. Heavy wind and wave damage was also reported in Craig, Wrangell, Petersburg and Sitka.

Even though the National Weather Service did not note much damage on Annette in its report, Roland Booth of Metlakatla told the Daily News a week after the storm that at least three boat houses were damaged or destroyed by the winds and that several boats were heavily damaged or sunk in the harbor.

But where the storm truly lives on, a half century later, is in the memory of the people who lived through it.

“I remember leaving the house to the church, even though we didn’t have power,” Mary Nault Bunch said recently. “We were on Tongass coming Carlanna and Dad saw the tower (one of the two ACS towers) fall. He immediately turned around and we went home.”

“Power lines fell on our door, the Bugges Beach dam broke, and my swing set blew off the cliff,” Alice Weisgram remembered recently.

“I remember that it was scary and that there were a lot of trees falling,” Jeannette Haley remembered. “I also remember standing at the window in our house at the end of Baranof and watching the trees going down on the mountain side like they were dominos.”

Thanksgiving Day Storm Damage - 1968 - Ketchikan, Alaska
Photo Courtesy Patrick Bryant ©

“It drove a big shard of glass out of a big window deep into solid wood flooring at our place on Deermont,” Tony Wilford said recently.

Bill Zamora’s family lived on Inman Street, right under the KTKN tower.

“The noise from the winds & tower falling scared the hell out of us,” he said. “Fortunately it fell away from our house.”

Farrel Lewis was living on Fourth Avenue.

“I remember the shingles flying off the house next door and hitting the windows in our living room with such force my dad hustled us into the hall in case a window failed, she said. He had a wind gauge that would hit the highest speed (110, I think) and the needle would just lay there. It was a pretty awful storm.”

“We lived in Ward Cove & watched the roofs fly off the pulp mill silos,” said Frances Young.

Patrick Bryant was living at the Ayson Hotel.

“We watched as garbage cans, a rubber life raft, and tar paper went by (their room on the third floor),” he said.

“Great swaths of timber blown down like taken by a lawn mower,” said Dorothy Wendeborn.

“I remember sneaking into the kitchen to look at the big tree swaying behind the house and my mom repeatedly dragging me out because they were afraid it would fall,” said Kim Simpson.

Kelly Ludwig Johnson lived in a trailer park above Ward Cove.

“One of the mobile homes was blown into the ravine,” she said. “My dad got called in to work from the pulp mill because some log booms got loose and they had to go round them up. Also remember that whole fingers from Bar Harbor tipped off and there were boats still tied up to the finger out floating around in the bay.”

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Marty Jackson was also in the Ward Cove trailer park.

“I remember watching the trailer lift off the blocks then come down,” he said. “It was rocking like crazy. Thought the next gust would tip it on over. Dad and I ran over and used loose blocks to keep it from rocking till we could get everybody out! Scary time!”

Evelyn Wilson said that nerves were frayed even as the storm was ebbing.

“My mother asked if my sisters and I could see if everyone was ok up at my grandmothers on Tatsuda Way,” she said. “There by the old Federal building we ran into this guy hugging onto a telephone pole for dear life. My two sisters and myself hung onto each other. My younger sister noticed that gentleman had lost his hat from the wind. She looked at him and said ‘hey you lost your hat.’ He gave her a funny look, like he was not about to let go of that pole for a hat.”

Ray Hendricks remembers driving into town because his parents had power.

“Man did that wind push against the car all the way in, around Talbot's corner/around Ferry's corner,” he said. “ [Then we saw] A full sheet of corrugated metal siding undulating about two feet off the street, nowhere to go. Told Judy and Laura to get down on floor. About eight feet before the sheet hit us it curved up and over the car and back down. Guess car pushing against wind must have caused that. Anyway no damage done and saw sheet hit rock wall by Ferry's store.”

Gary Boatwright lived on Warren Street. He also noticed the sheet metal near Ferry’s and the Lutheran Church.

“All those warehouses that used to be in front of berth 4 had metal roofing,” he said. “As the wind gusted it was peeling those sheets off like they were newspapers and blowing them away.”

Laurie Ludwigsen said that her family house was significantly damaged but they were lucky.

“I can remember in the morning looking out the window and seeing big trees uprooting,” she said. “If two of my sisters were still in bed just 10 minutes longer they would of been goners. Big ass tree went over their bedroom. Our house, our cars all got damaged by trees. We lived with our grandparents for 3 to 4 months.”

Janet Bartholomew was on Second Avenue.

“I watched as the roof on the Harbormaster's house at Bar Harbor blew off,” she said. “Other items from people's homes flew by on Second Avenue too. Mom and I would see the gust coming across the channel, then we'd duck behind the wall until the blast finished. We had Thanksgiving dinner at The Narrows because they had a gas range and could cook the meals.”

Rosemary Nelson was also on Second Avenue.

“I saw trash cans fly by and the neighbor's chimney blew off,” she said.

Tim Banning lived at Crowder’s trailer park, near where Walmart is.

“A tree blew over straight down the middle of my dad's newly renovated wooden boat,” he said. “So much for spring fishing, just scrap. We also put our bed mattresses up against the sliding door just in case it decided it give out.”

Kay Hines Andrew was in the hospital for surgery.

“They were going to let me go home but changed their mind we watched the tower come down right next to the hospital and full sheets of plywood blowing around the bar harbor boats floating everywhere, docks were all breaking loose,” she said.

Melanie Cleveland was going to church while the wind still blowing.

“I remember my dad coming to help us get home,” she said. “In my mind at least, I recall him holding on to me to keep the wind from blowing me away. Now it wouldn’t have blown me ‘away’ but I was really scared that’s what would happen if he wasn’t holding on tight to my little eight year old hand.”

“It was fun for us kids, but terrifying for the adults,” Lisa Doyon said. “My mom kept yelling, get away from the windows! We lived on Water Street, across from city float. When she wasn't looking, we went on the back porch and became human kites! I watched a VW bug blowing sideways down the road. Also saw a float drifting by with an airplane upside down on it. I kept sneaking out into the backyard, where the wind blew us over.”

“Huddling in the living room by the fireplace with the family,” said Dan Sivertsen. “Coats and boots on. We thought that was the strongest part in the house farthest from the trees. My mom was terrified, I didn’t really know why.”

Ray Turek remembers watching the spray from Tongass Narrows hitting the Bar Harbor breakwater and carrying over onto Tongass Avenue.

“I saw sheets of plywood/corrugated fiberglass roofing/chimney toppers/garbage cans flying and tumbling down Third Ave,” he said. “Dad fired up our little gas generator and we had enough juice for a light bulb and the frying pan.”

Muriel Ulmer lived out by Totem Bight and saw two telephone poles go down in the parking lot.

“My brother had the pet shop and all of the neighbors all got together and begged KPU to restore the electricity to them so the birds and tropical fish wouldn't die,” she said. “We were out of lights for 4 days but KPU restored the lights for the fish. We lived through it, but wow, worst I had seen before or since.”

Gay Peters lived in Beaver Falls and remembers the power plant workers having cut through the trees on South Tongass to get into town.

“What a wild day,” Peters said. “It sounded like a freight train coming down George Inlet.”

Janet Wilder Spear lived near Mountain Point and remembered the water “sheeting” across South Tongass Highway.

The state ferry Wickersham was coming into town and had to try to reach Ketchikan during the storm.

“They were struggling to get to Ketchikan,” Sharon McKinley said. “Which they eventually did, but remember no cell phones then, just a lot of anxious waiting.”

Debbie Lemay saw both the ACS towers come down. She and her siblings tried to go out and stand in the wind.

“My brother had to hang onto me to keep me grounded,” she said. “Later we watched a house float down Tongass Narrows.”

Like numerous other residents they scrambled to find somewhere there was a gas oven, or oil stove, or fireplace to make Thanksgiving dinner. A few places on South Tongass and Dunton Street apparently kept their power on, but nearly everyone else was without power for most of the rest of the day and several areas were off for up to a week.

Tonia Hansen remembers cooking “the turkey in the fireplace.”

As did Drena McIntyre’s family on Roosevelt Drive.

“When the power went out Thanksgiving morning, Mom transferred the turkey and stuffing to our big stone fireplace and finished baking them there,” she said recently.

“She even baked bread over the fire. We were without power for several days and all camped out in front of our fireplace.”

Some families really had made do, without electricity or an oil stove or a fireplace.

“Power was out, but we had an oil space heater in our living room, so they came to our house and we just cranked up the heat and put the bird on the space heater,” Patricia Johnson said.

Other families made do without turkey.

“The power went out so we could not cook the turkey,” said Kerry Ripplinger. “We had hotdogs in the freezer so we started the fire in the fireplace and roasted hotdogs and spent time together in the living room.”

Joyce Bergeron’s family also resorted to hot dogs in the fireplace.

“With candles burning everywhere it was so nice and cozy - out came the board games and all of us (fifteen, or so) having so much fun that when the power came back on there was this 'oh no!! groan,” she said. “ So, it goes to show you - the Alaskans are famous for being resourceful.”

Judi Slajer said that more than 40 trees came down on South Point Higgins Road.

“ It took the most part of 4 days to clear - thank heaven for our fireplace where I could hang a stew pot. Neighborhood ate well that weekend,” she said recently.

Outside of Ketchikan, the storm was just as exciting. Jenny Betterton was at a logging camp in Cholmondeley Sound.

“I was walking on a floating log that was chained together (we used these chained together logs as walkways) that separated my Mother’s floathouse from mine when I heard a gust coming so I layed down flat on the top of the log so that I wouldn’t get blown in the bay,” she said. “Wow. It blew in my Mother’s picture window in her floathouse.”

Lauren Woolery was in Port Protection.

“We knew it had blown hard the day/night before but I had no concept,” she said. “I went up in back of the store to take a look-see along the trail. I rushed back to tell Mother about all the blown-down trees I’d seen. She and Daddy did not believe me until they themselves went and looked.”

Don Ermaloff was in Thorne Bay at the time and remembers seeing 55-gallon oil drums rolling down the street, pushed by the wind.

Catherine Sis was 11 at the time, the storm left a mark on her.

“It still scares me to hear strong winds,” she said recently. “I remember my parents telling me to stay away from the windows because they were afraid the windows would blow out. I also remember walking on Tongass Avenue, the next day, and witnessing the destruction from the storm. A skiff was blown clear through a chain-link fence, and stuff was blown all over the place.”

Marla Llanos Judson also remembers her parents making her stay away the windows because they were afraid the windows would shatter at any minute.

Suzan Thompson lived in a A-frame house on South Tongass.

“The front of the house was flexing in the wind,” She said. “My dad took a chance on causing a pressure blow-out, opened up the back door, and hauled in a huge timber left over from construction. He put one end of it up against the front of the house and put the butt of the timber against the braces holding up the balcony. The storm got worse, and he told my mom he wasn't sure the front of the house would hold, so they loaded all seven of us into the car, along with a couple of pies, some bread, and some fruit, (we abandoned the turkey) and we drove to town and got a room at the Hilltop Motel, which is now The Landing. We drove through power lines whipping around on the road, and the car rocked like nobody's business. Good thing there were nine of us in there weighing it down. I remember the huge green waves in the Narrows; they were like something out of a movie.”

But not all attempts to “improvise” a Thanksgiving dinner were entirely successful.

“We lived at the town end of Roosevelt Drive,” said Holly Vondersmith. “When the power went out that day my mom had a turkey in the oven. She called her sister who lived at the Homestead trailer court and said my dad was bringing the bird to her because they had gas appliances. My dad took off but returned shortly and told mom to call Uncle Tom and have him “meet me at the tree”. They met at the huge tree that had fallen across South Tongass and passed the turkey. I sat in my mom’s big chair all day watching the water across the highway.”

Deborah Ward also said she was mesmerized watching the storm whip up the Narrows.

“I was sitting on our couch on Pennock island staring at the ocean,” she said. “It was nothing but white foam with what seemed to be 10 feet or more of white mist above it. As I watched in childish wonderment, I saw the tall orange and white tower bend slowly, as if in slow motion, until the tip appeared to touch the ground. Objects were flying through the air, both on Pennock and across in town. Mom was so mad she couldn't finish the turkey when the power went out. She didn't even care about the storm. Until the roof blew off."

For utility workers, the storm meant round the clock work getting the power back on.

“My Dad was a Lineman for KPU and we didn’t see him for a week,” Jim Duncan said.

Still many of the people who remember the storm were children then. And in some ways the storm was more exciting than scary.

“I remember looking out the front window and watching neighbor kids walking into the wind, opening their rain coats and flying backwards 15-20 ft,” Harley Bray said recently. “Looked like great fun, but dad wouldn't let us out to try it.”

Janalee Minnich Gage also remembered the good.

“We all sat in the dark and didn't eat till really, really late,” she said. “We snacked on pie, olives, and veggies. I'm sure I thought it was the best holiday ever cause we got desert first.”

For Loren Stanton and his family, the downed trees were somewhat of a bonanza.

“We spent the days after cutting up the enormous tree that fell on our garage,” he said. “We had plenty of firewood after that storm.”

Teenagers and young adults at the time, such as Terry Carlin, seemed particularly upset that Ketchikan’s main “hangout” the Toot and Tell Drive In, located at the foot of Jefferson on Tongass was significantly damaged.

And since no one was seriously hurt in the storm, many people now see it as something that was maybe scary at the time, but is now remembered somewhat fondly.

“Nothing like candles in a storm to bond a family,” Gary Turner said recently.




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Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
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