Mount St. Helens — May 1980

(contd. from the previous post).

As Mount St. Helens primed for its explosion, the government dithered. Logging companies (including Wyerhaeuser, one of the largest private owners of timberlands in the world) which owned most of the land around the volcano vehemently opposed geologists’ plan to set a large danger zone around the mountain. Indeed, logging of old growth forests was so extensive here that when President Carter looked out of his plane window and commented, “Look at that incredible devastation,” he had to be corrected, “Oh no, Mister President, those are just clear cuts. We haven’t gotten to the volcano yet.”

Other government officials sounded equally out-of-touch. “All the people who were killed—I think except for the scientists—were there illegally,” said Governor Dixy Lee Ray, while in fact, only three of the 57 known Mount St. Helens victims were inside the state’s designated danger zones. But the governor was always prone to such gaffes; earlier, she had giddily commented, “I’ve always said I wanted to live long enough to see one of our volcanoes erupt.”

Due to government inaction, and people’s nonchalance (even before the volcano erupted, visitors were walking around with T-shirts that said, “I survived Mount St. Helens.”), the eruption was one of the most well documented natural disasters. It was one of the first major volcanic eruptions ever to be recorded on film. Most notable are photos taken by amateur photographer Gary Rosenquist and University of Washington graduate student Keith Ronnholm from a campground 10 miles away.  Rosenquist’s 24-frame sequence (above) was later used to reconstruct the explosion by the scientists and used at Mount St. Helens education center. Another notable was local news photographer Dave Crockett, whose video, of which eleven minutes were recorded in total darkness, was re-played on televisions worldwide. (Ronnholm and Rosenquist were lucky; they were extremely close to the blast, but were shielded by the landscape which deflected the blast around 1 mile short of their location).

Despite all infelicities, death toll was smaller than expected — around 100 people were feared missing immediately afterwards, but many of them survived. The land’s recovery was no less miraculous too: just three years after the eruption, 90 percent of plant species and nearly all mammals had returned to the blast area. Leaving the downed trees where they lay, against the logging companies’ wishes to clear them, also resulted in faster recovery.


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