Tuesday, May 18, 2010

30 Years Ago: The Eruption of Mount St. Helens

From the Washington State Digital Archives

Today, May 18th, is a red-letter day in Washington State. Thirty years ago today, at 8:32 AM, Mount St. Helens erupted. "The eruption touched off the greatest landslide ever, ripping off a large part of that enormous dome, blowing out 3.7 billion cubic yards of mountaintop and spewing ash that girdled the globe a number of times. The blast zone was 230 square miles; 57 people, including the crotchety Harry Truman, lost their lives." [Washington Secretary of State blog]

At the time, I was a 13-year-old eighth grader, living with my parents and younger siblings about 10 miles north of Colville in Northeastern Washington. It was a Sunday and I'm sure we went to church that morning. I don't remember exactly when or how we heard the news that the mountain had erupted, but at the time, it wasn't a surprise. Scientists had been monitoring the mountain for some time, as it was showing signs of volcanic activity. But it wasn't until we came home after church and turned on the TV that we realized the effect the eruption was having on Eastern Washington, especially those communities lying directly in the path of the ash cloud, like Ritzville and Spokane.

Spokane, Washington is the largest urban area between Seattle and the Twin Cities, Minnesota. Eighty miles to the south of my home, it was where all local television news was broadcast for my small rural community. And what a broadcast the local stations had for us! The reporters told how everything became deathly quiet, the sky turned dark by three o'clock in the afternoon with street lights coming on, and then the ash fell. Like snow it came down, up to six inches' worth, but much more serious. People with respiratory problems were affected, and so were vehicles. The fine particles of ash clogged air filters in automobiles. Air filters and face masks were soon sold out everywhere. Snow plows had to clear the streets, and the Spokane Police Department had special filtration systems in place on the front of their vehicles making them look like strange space machines. In fact, the city took on the look of a moonscape, gray and dusty. Schools, colleges, and even businesses closed for a week, and as in times past and future, the community came together to help each other out. (Check out photos from the local paper here.)

But up in the Colville area, the effect was much less severe. I took some photos of my parents' Jeep which showed just a light dusting of ash, as well as a panoramic shot of the mountain across the valley from their home. Normally easily visible even on a cloudy day, it appeared to be obscured by a cloud--not of rain, but of ash from a mountain some 400 miles away!

Jeep, with light dusting of ash.
© Copyright 1980, Miriam Robbins Midkiff


View from my parents' home toward Mount Dominion, normal day.
© Copyright 1980, Miriam Robbins Midkiff

Same view, with ash.
© Copyright 1980, Miriam Robbins Midkiff

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Meanwhile, on the "other side of the mountains," as we like to say here in Washington, my husband-to-be was soundly sleeping. A 23-year-old college student in Vancouver (Washington, not British Columbia), he had been staying awake for hours on end, hoping to be able to witness the highly-anticipated event that the media and scientific world had been predicting. A beautiful dome in the snowy Cascade range which stretches from Lytton Mountain in British Columbia to Lassen Peak in Northern California, it was in the company of such notable peaks as Mount Baker, Mount Rainier, Mount Adams, Mount Hood, the Three Sisters, Mount McLoughlin, and Mount Shasta.

From the Washington State Digital Archives

Exhausted after waiting, he fell asleep and slept through the blast and concussion, even though it was only 50 miles away! Only a small amount of ash fell on Southwest Washington, as the blast and then the jet stream carried it away to the northeast.

Many residents of Washington can today show you their jars of Mount St. Helens ash, the fine particles like baby powder, from which ash trays and other mementos were made. Even today, if you look carefully, you can see the ash here and there throughout Central and Eastern Washington. Certainly, if you do any digging, you'll come across the layer. The ash, although devastating on many levels, did enrich the soil in Eastern Washington.

I tried to find the photo of my one trip several years ago when we came rather close to the now barren mountain after visiting my in-laws. It appears the photo has been damaged in my computer crash a year ago, so I won't be able to post it here. But I'll never forget driving up and pulling over to take a good look at the remains of the scorched mountain. At that time, it had been smoking again. Even at 10 or 15 miles away, it looked ominous, eerie, ghostly. Chills went up my spine and I urged my husband to turn around quickly and return to Vancouver. It took no strong imagination to understand how the ancient natives felt about these volcanoes. Sleeping giants, monsters, evil spirits...the legends live on.

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Here are more memories shared by others in the Inland Northwest.
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