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Chasing the elusive Sandy Tornado of 1979

It happened in an era without cell phones, the Internet or digital cameras. That could be part of the reason the jury is out on whether an actual tornado tore through Sandy 35 years ago.

The evidence is less than conclusive, but the certainty is that some violent weather hit the town back then.

Walt Driscoll is one who swears it was a twister. He and his family had just moved into their home on Bornstedt Road on an August night in 1979 when the weather suddenly turned bad.

“When I was bringing my truck load down the road, I had a load of wood with me, and I could see the mountain. It was a beautiful day,” he said. “And then I saw this black cloud with bumps on the bottom, and it really struck me. It was down on the creek bottom. All of a sudden, the weather changed drastically, and it hailed really hard and rained. So I just stayed in my cab and watched.”

Next, Driscoll said, a flash flood came in and poured through the vents in his house.by: ARCHIVED PHOTO - A Sandy Post front page photo from Aug. 23, 1979, gives evidence of the damage caused by what the Post called a violent storm, while others say it was in fact a tornado.

“So I’d witnessed a tornado and a flash flood at the same time,” he said, recalling the day was Aug. 26. “Dale, my neighbor, had the worst damage because his home was being built.”

A look at the Sandy Post archives corroborates Driscoll’s account, at least about his neighbor’s house. The front page photo for Aug. 23 (three days before Driscoll’s recollection) shows the destroyed home of Dale Quin, although the accompanying story was about a violent thunderstorm with 90 mph winds, with no mention of a twister.

“The high gusts of wind toppled trees, knocked walls out of houses under construction and flattened a third,” said the article, which reported the storm swept in around 6 p.m. that Monday.

Still, Driscoll maintains what he experienced was a tornado, and he offers anecdotal evidence to back it up.

“I also spoke to a kid up there at Shorty’s (Corner), and he said ‘Well, my grandmother said there was a lot of debris being picked up and put into the air,’” Driscoll said. “And what else happened was the dahlia bulb guy had a greenhouse behind his home. Apparently, if there was a funnel cloud, it picked his greenhouse up from behind his house. He said they didn’t find it for about a year.”

The “dahlia bulb guy” was unavailable for comment as of press time. Driscoll said he wanted to bring attention to the alleged tornado so that people today can be aware.

“We’ve had a heat wave here and then there’s all that cool air coming in,” he said. “If people don’t see the signs, and they don’t recognize the clouds, they can get caught up and surprised.”

Jerry Lawson used to run a filling station where Walgreens now stands, and he said he recalls a night of a violent storm and agrees it was a tornado.

“I don’t remember the day, but it was real,” he said. “It came up blowing like hell and all the lights went out, so I locked up and left. It blew all the signs off the ground. Later on, I got a call telling me my station was wide open. I was so spooked I’d left the door open.”

While the Post article from that year documents the storm but does not declare it a tornado, we know that newspapers are the rough draft of history. With this in mind, we sought another source for confirmation.

Andy Bryant is a hydrologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Portland. He said that if there is no record in the storm data archives, it does not necessarily mean there was not a tornado.

“The only way it would be in storm data is if somebody passed the information to us,” he said. “In today’s world, with cell phones and the Internet and YouTube, it’s a lot easier to document these events, whereas it was not so much 30 years ago.”

With that in mind, Bryant later sent the following email:

“I might have found the tornado of interest, but the date is not the one you gave. The only tornado in our area for 1979 was Aug. 20, no time of day specified. The location was Sandy in Clackamas County.”

If you have any recollection, evidence or other information concerning the elusive twister, contact the Sandy Post.