Monday, May 18, 2009

History: Mount Saint Helens Day

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - So far, I've managed to get through the day without hearing a mention of Mount Saint Helens in the media. Normally, 18-May, the date in 1980 when the largest eruption of the mountain in the modern era occurred, killing 57, receives a lot of attention at least in the states of Washington and Oregon. I have personally used it as context for a math competition nine years later and a double-header of steam locomotives twenty-seven years later.

The direct impact of the nine-hour eruption on my personal life was relatively minimal. I remember being able to see the ash cloud rising even from a high spot near I-90 in the Enatai neighborhood of Bellevue, but on that day none of the ash headed our direction, and I did not know anyone in the path of the debris flow containing an estimated three million cubic meters of material that ran principally down the Toutle and Cowlitz Rivers to the Columbia.

It was a different story for my grandparents and my aunt Meri's family, who were fishing at Williams Lake near Cheney in eastern Washington state at the time. They received substantial ash fall from the eruption rivaling the peak 25+ cm fall near Lind, Washington in a surreal experience in which it was completely dark during daylight hours. They listened to (amongst other sources) Mike Fitzsimmons' famous 56 hours of eruption coverage on KXLY 920 AM out of Spokane, Washington. The day after the ash fall, they were told not to disrupt the ash, as it was not known what it contained, but my grandfather was among those that did not heed the advice and cleaned off the roof of their trailer and walkways anyway. A jar of this gray ash is one of my most cherished possessions.

Roads back to their Tri-Cities home were closed for several days, but eventually they were able to take the old highway via Washtucna, rather than the traditional route via US 395 which headed right through the peak ash fall area. Ash was still very much blowing in this area, and the position of air filters in vehicles proved very important. Those with air filters close to the ground tended to get clogged filters very quickly, while those in a higher or more protected position tended to have fewer problems. Air filters for cars and nose masks for people were very popular items during the entire series of eruptive activity in eastern Washington, where the ash was normally blown.

Next year will mark the thirtieth anniversary of the Mount Saint Helens eruption. Rest assured that everyone will be remembering it then.

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