I am riveted by the major volcanic event happening right now on the island of Hawaii and am amazed by how little we are hearing about it. It's particularly poignant to me since I was living in Portland, Oregon in 1980 when Mt. St. Helens erupted. It seems that many people don't realize just how unpredictable and devasting a volcanic eruption can be. I remember watching the news and reading the papers as the north side of the mountain developed a bulge that grew larger each day. Unfortunately, there were major logging operations happening on that side, and the red zone was made much smaller than it should have been with business interests telling everyone that the mountain was sure to erupt on the other side.
In the last week of April, a 1.5-mile-diameter (2.4 km) section of St. Helens' north face was bulging outward. The false theory given by the logging companies was that the bulge would collapse in on itself causing the other side to blow out. Meanwhile, the geologists and those of us with no scientific knowledge about eruptions were sure that the bulge was the weakest point and the impending landslide would cause the mountain to blow out that way. It turned out, the geologists were right. There was a massive landslide, the largest in recorded history, that caused the mountain to finally erupt, killing 57 people with only 3 of them in the red zone.
I understand that no one could have predicted the force with which the mountain blew, but there is no excuse for marking the danger zone so carelessly. If the eruption had happened on a weekday, hundreds of loggers would have perished. The mountain had shown signs of the impending explosion starting in March with smallish earthquakes throughout March and April, building in intensity. Several small craters opened up near the top, and it finally erupted on May 18th. That was plenty of time to take the proper precautions. The governor of Washington had papers on her desk that would have extended the red zone, had she signed them in time, saving most of those lost lives, but she was occupied elsewhere. The mountain’s eruption released 24 megatons of thermal energy, 7 by the blast and the rest through the release of heat. The wave of hot mud and debris surpassed 90 miles per hour with some people barely outrunning it in their cars and others never making it out at all.
That first cloud of ash traveled east, coating mid-western states in a blanket of ash. Later smaller eruptions came our way, as the mountain worked to rebuild her dome. When the news alerted us to an eruption, we would go across the street where we had a view of the mountain and look to see which way the wind was blowing the ash. If it was coming our way, we’d rush out to the store for supplies. The ash was made up of silica, a fine sand-like substance that was similar to ground glass, and we didn’t want to be out in that. After it was all on the ground, we were instructed to wet it down with a hose and shovel it into plastic bags for removal. Breathing it could cause black lung disease. When we did have to go out, we all had filters that we wore over our noses and mouths. There were no sizes small enough to fit my son, who was only a year at the time, so I made one using an insert from a child sized mask and making my own container for it. I was often horrified to see young children outside playing in their yards wearing no protection with ash billowing up around them despite the warnings.
You also couldn’t drive when the ash was falling. It was a thick mud falling out of the sky like rain or snow. If you turned on your windshield wipers, the fine glass would scrape your windshield, but if you did nothing, you couldn’t see. It also clogged your air filter in minutes causing your car to stall. Meanwhile, on the downtown streets, there were people carrying signs warning us all to repent because it was the end of the world. I’m sorry that I never thought to take photos of our bizarre costumes and the doomsdayers or thought to save any of the ash. Now, I only have my memories. As a mother, it was very stressful trying to ensure my children’s safety and health. I have lots of volcano stories: a story about the homeless men giving me all of their spare change when I was stranded downtown as the ash started falling so that I could take shelter with my children in a café until it was over; and one about the Grateful Dead concert that ended abruptly because the mountain had erupted at the moment The Dead played “Fire On the Mountain” and, with the ash heading our way, they needed to get out of town fast. We sheltered wall to wall Deadheads in our home that night, playing music and partying until dawn.
So now I watch the news about the Hawaiian volcano with interest and trepidation. Their magma is flowing in the streets and spewing columns of molten lava up in the air. Yesterday, I read that a new crack had opened up with lava very near the shelter set up for displaced families, and I wonder why they are still that close by. I saw a video of one man holding his hand over a crack commenting on how much heat he could feel coming out of it. And I thought to myself, “Why is he standing there putting his hand where there could be a column of lava coming out at any time?” Then I realize that I may never understand people.