St. Helens: A blast from the past

Anyone under the age of 24 may be puzzled at one aspect of Mount St. Helens TV coverage: Why are there such urgent TV predictions of wind direction?

Mount St. Helens lies about fifty miles from Portland. There couldn’t be any lava flow here. No trees blown down.

Older residents, however – those who remember the St. Helens blow-up in 1980 – are paying close attention to those wind forecasts.

When the volcano erupted in 1980, Portland residents initially experienced it as spectacular entertainment. Looking to the north, they saw awe-inspiring clouds of steam, smoke and ash billowing thousands of feet into the air. They turned on their televisions to see almost incredible shots of Washington’s Toutle River – what seemed like millions of logs almost clogged the river in an endless stream.

After the first thrill, residents realized the tragic consequences. A number of people caught on the mountain did not survive.

Spirit Lake, a favorite recreation spot frequented by Portlanders, disappeared in the blast. Wildlife experts predicted it would be many years before wildlife would again appear in the barren blast site.

Immediately the wind over the crater became an issue to people in Washington. The winds pushed the clouds of ash eastward. The ash began falling to earth. Television revealed the residents of Yakima, Wash., outside their homes, brushing the accumulated volcanic ash off their streets and sidewalks. Many of them seemed to be taking it in good spirits, even joking.

Suddenly the wind shifted again, sending the clouds toward Portland. Clouds of ultra-fine gray volcanic ash sifted down. Suddenly, the volcano became a local experience.

Citizens found it incredible, alarming even, how quickly the ash built up, covering everything with mounds of fine gray dust. Autos found the ash a tricky footing and driving became more cautious.

Homeowners quickly took to their sidewalks to sweep the piles of ash into the streets. An official warning came: wear a cloth mask over the nose and mouth, lest the fine ash clog and possibly smother the lungs. People needed no warnings. The experience of the increasingly heavy buildup of fine ash motivated everyone to mask up immediately. The outdoors resembled a convention of operating room surgeons.

Then the most dangerous trait of ash fall began to appear. Autos would be carefully picking their routes along the dusty streets when suddenly the cars would stop dead. They would not start again. Drivers would flip open their hoods, to discover the insides of the engine compartments piled with gray ash. The ash had clogged air cleaners, completely deactivating engines. There was nothing to do but trudge to the nearest service station for a new air cleaner.

Fortunately, the period of facemasks and clogged air cleaners did not last long. Rain and city workers combined to clear away the worst of the ash in a matter of weeks. It took months for the ash to work down completely into flowerbeds and lawns.

That’s why, this time, people older than 24 are paying close attention to the wind forecasts. And why TV is revealing people stocking up on facemasks.

One optimistic note appeared unexpectedly in 1980 after all the tragedy and trouble had quieted down a little. Supposedly, Mount St. Helens would find itself barren of wildlife for a very long time. Yet, as the debris blanketing the mountain began to cool, a helicopter photographer came upon an unexpected sight.

A lone deer walked, methodically and seemingly unconcerned, across the vast gray expanse of ash. Nature was already healing itself.