Memories, lessons from mountain's fury
AP Photo/Longview Daily News, Roger Werth - This file photo of Mount St. Helens erupting on May 18, 1980 is one of the photos by Roger Werth of the Longview Daily News that were included in the newspaper's 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Local General or Spot News Reporting. Wednesday will mark the 25th anniversary of the eruption.

Editor's note: Andre Stepankowsky is the city editor of The Daily News. He was a reporter for the paper in 1980 when Mount St. Helens erupted. He was part of the team that won the Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the volcano.

One hundred generations from now, the people of southwest Washington still will be grappling with Mount St. Helens.

Still trying to predict the size and moment of its next eruption.

Still balancing the need to keep a safe distance and the human passion to get close to danger.

Still protecting cities from mudflows and volcanic muck.

Still healing forests slashed by the mountain's magmatic fury.

In their search for answers, those future Washingtonians will probably look to the dim past, to see how their 20th and 21st century ancestors coped with May 18, 1980.

The people of this region, after all, did a dissertation on coping with disasters - and have come to a deep understanding of how quickly geological forces can fire apocalyptic change, how a land of pristine beauty can become a smoking hell in just minutes.

May 18, 1980, was just the beginning of a story that changed the destiny and face of southwest Washington forever.

Mount St. Helens was called a disaster without an end. Even today, 25 years after the mountain exploded, the question still arises: How can a community live with the uncertainty that comes with being next door to one of the world's most active and dangerous volcanoes?

For years following the eruption, engineers and bureaucrats asked whether cities along the lower Cowlitz River could continue to exist.

In those years, any rainstorm swelled anxieties along with river levels. Would this be the storm that the river, clogged with volcanic debris, finally would come pouring over dikes, despite dredgers' best efforts?

May 18, 1980, dawned a gorgeous spring morning in southwest Washington. Before it was over, 57 people were dead, an expanse of forest lay in smoldering ruins, 196 families were homeless and large parts of the Northwest were paralyzed by a blanket of gritty ash.

The mountain, of course, had been spitting and bulging for nearly two months, and geologists had warned that its north slope was "sitting on marbles." But what happened exceeded their worst-case projections.

A 5.1 magnitude earthquake at 8:32 that morning gave the teetering north flank its final, fatal nudge. Within 10 to 20 seconds, the largest landslide in recorded history was hurtling toward Spirit Lake at speeds of up to 150 mph.

The avalanche split into three parts as it rushed off the mountain.

One smashed and filled in Spirit Lake, swamping the water nearly 700 feet up Mount Margaret to the north. When the water flowed back in, it washed thousands of trees and tons of mud into the lake.

A second surge of debris hit the Toutle Valley bottom and then catapulted 1,000 feet uphill, topping what became Johnston Ridge and tumbling on into the next valley, that of South Coldwater Creek.

The third surge rumbled westward down the north fork of the Toutle River, burying the upper 17 miles to an average depth of 150 feet. The eastern 20 miles or so of Spirit Lake Highway were buried forever.

'It's gonna get me, too'

David Johnston, the young U.S. Geological Survey scientist, perished after blurting those excited, but not fearful, words into a radio from a vantage point five miles to the north: "Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!"

Eight miles northwest of the mountain, ham radio operator Jerry Martin watched the blast engulf Johnston's camp and the car of Vancouver Columbian photographer Reid Blackburn.

"It's gonna get me, too," Martin calmly uttered into his radio.

That was the last anyone heard of Martin, who, like Johnston, never was found.

The blast destroyed everything within about five miles north and west of the mountain, and it didn't vent its fury until it had laid waste forests up to 17 miles away. It left a narrow band of standing, but heat-killed trees ringing a blast zone of 230 square miles.

Then came the mudflows. The blast was a kiln that melted tons of glacial ice and snow and sent concrete-like slurries sloshing down nearly every drainage on its flanks.

The mudflows were like liquid freight trains, unstoppable forces that swept logs and log trucks, houses, bridges, cars and anything else downstream.

Looming like a monster over all this destruction, a towering black column of ash shot up to 80,000 feet - more than 15 miles - and continued to churn out soot for nine hours. In all, the volcano spit 1.4 billion cubic yards of ash into the sky that day. What didn't fall to the earth circled the planet in 15 days.

The land smoked and hissed, and foresters wondered if it would ever grow trees again in their lifetimes.

Rivers were so clogged with silt that a routine storm would have sent the silt-engorged Cowlitz running out of control.

Lakes dammed up by volcanic debris threatened to burst out and cause floods so catastrophic that they would be "unprecedented in the history of the United States," to quote one government report of the time.

The will to recover

Congress funded $1 billion for disaster relief, but politics and bureaucracy caused the bulk of the money to be spent elsewhere in the nation.

A new Reagan administration in the White House resisted funding requests to dredge local rivers, and even local Republicans complained that the federal officials were more intent on balancing the budget than protecting lives and property in Cowlitz County.

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People seeking disaster aid got gummed up in red tape, because disaster assistance rules often didn't fit the circumstances of this tragedy.

Residents fled the county, unable to cope with the uncertainty of flooding and continuing volcanic eruptions.

It would have been easy to feel utterly dispirited.

Instead, the people, scientists, engineers and officials of this region rebounded, matching the power of the volcano with an energy of their own.

Local and state officials outwitted the White House to win a half-billion dredging and dike-building effort by the Army Corps of Engineers. Because of that work, when the Cowlitz rose to record levels in the floods of November 1995 and February 1996, Castle Rock, Lexington, Longview and Kelso rested comfortably behind the levees the engineers had raised or fortified.

"These communities are safe tonight because of Mount St. Helens," former Cowlitz County Commissioner Van Youngquist remarked while he watched the Cowlitz rise the night of Nov. 29, 1995.

Communities around the world's other volcanoes also are safer because of Mount St. Helens. Geologists pioneered volcano forecasting here. Witnessing the May 18 eruption gave them a key to interpret deposits that mystified them at other volcanoes. They learned, for example, that volcanoes collapse and erupt laterally more often then they had earlier believed.

Forests will be healthier because of lessons ecologists and foresters have learned at Mount St. Helens.

Contrary to early impressions, scientists learned that the blast zone was still very much alive. Scientists noticed that the land rebounded much faster where plants and animals had survived underground or under snow or ice. This finding help lead to the development of "New Forestry" - a management philosophy that emphasizes preservation of remnants of the previous ecosystems when planning clearcuts and other land disturbances. So, the snags, rotten logs and standing trees left amid modern clearcuts to "jump start" ecological recovery can be traced back to Mount St. Helens.

Coming back to life

Until last fall, when the mountain began rumbling again after a 19-year hiatus, it was easy to think we had "done our time" with the volcano. Not so.

The mountain's lava dome is growing so rapidly that, if it continues, the youngsters of 1980 may see the volcano "whole" again. How neat - to live through an entire volcano "rotation."

How neat, also, to watch nature return. Volcanoes, though they are the bringers of chaos and destruction, are also nature's agent of renewal. Who, after witnessing nature rebound from May 18, can doubt the potency of the life force?

And who, with the mountain perking again, needs to be reminded of that missive often attributed to Will Durant: "Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice."

The story of Mount St. Helens is far from over. For as long as people live in Southwest Washington, they'll have to contend with an active volcano. There will be more mudflows, more ash clouds and more eruptions - perhaps more devastating than the one on May 18, 1980.


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