Mount St. Helens -- 'only once in 4,000 years'

It first sent its "smoke signal" on March 27 -- a colorful array of steam and ash that dabbed up Northwest sunsets and brought residents, tourists, and earth scientists scampering into the area.

An erupting volcano. An almost unique natural phenomenon seldom viewed by mainland Americans and a prized "laboratory" for volcanologists hungering for new scientific data.

But early Sunday morning May 18, while many people were preparing for church and a day of leisure with the family, Mt. St. Helens -- Washington State's own "live" volcano -- bellowed from its scenic mountaintop. With a roar heard 200 miles away, the volcano exploded with a vengeance that jolted the Pacific Northwest, dumped tons of volcanic ash on communities large and small, unleashed flood waters and mudslides, took at least 19 lives, and startled a nation inexperienced in coping with this kind of event.

Now, as the eruption seems to be quieting, its clouds of ash are still drifting across US skies -- glimpsed by millions in Eastern and Midwest communities whose volcanic experiences (up to now) have come mainly from textbooks and cinematic extravaganzas. Volcanologists expect the mountain to continue spewing dust and ash "almost indefinitely."

A spokesman for the US Geological Survey (USGS) declared, almost in awe, that there is no record in the last 4,000 years of anything like this happening before. He was referring to the tremendous blast which moved laterally out of the volcano.

President Carter quickly declared Washington State a disaster area -- and soon was peering down at the volcano from a helicopter to get a firsthand look.

Geologists told Mr. Carter that this was "one of the biggest explosions ever recorded." He also met with Govs. Dixy Lee Ray of Washington, Victor Atiyeh of Oregon, and John Evans of Idaho at a federal relief center in Vancouver, Wash.

A moment of tension surfaced Wednesday night between Governor Ray and fellow Democrat Carter when the outspoken Washingtonian interrupted the President's questioning of the volcano's status and impatiently stated: "This is all very interesting, but we need your help." When asked for the specific needs, Governor Ray spelled out "M-O-N-E-Y."

The President announced no specific programs after the meeting but asked the governor to "just inventory very carefully all your needs . . . . We'll work out the costs." Governor Ray has estimated the damage to the state roads and highways alone at more than $150 million.

A spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency told Monitor reporter Peter N. Spotts that government agencies were establishing a joint information center in Washington State to answer questions about available federal aid. "We haven't dealt much with mainland volcanoes" quipped Bill Williams. He added that more than 100 programs "can be called in" to help individuals and businesses.

For example, temporary housing -- rent-free for up to a year -- will be available for those whose homes have been destroyed and those who cannot reach their homes yet. Those who suffered property losses will be eligible to deduct them from their 1979 federal income taxes, yielding an immediate refund. Mr. Williams says Internal Revenue Service agents are already in the field taking applications. The Small Business Administration will be making disaster loans as well.

A US Department of Agriculture spokesman said his agency is evaluating the volcano's effect on a three-state area -- Washington, Idaho, and Montana. Based on their findings, a variety of aid programs will be made available to farmers.

Mr. Carter optimistically observed that the worst was over. "We hope that the people will not be excessively concerned about aspects of the catastrophe for the future," he told a Portland audience. "The ash [spread by the volcano] is not poisonous. It will not poison the land. We hope the crops will survive adequately." [Word Illegible] ber camps in the area. But water supplies were still short.

The catastrophe had its lighter moments. The National Weather Service issued a bulletin declaring the erruption "illegal." It stated: "Environmental scientists have been studying the discharge from Mt. St. Helens in southwestern Washington and have found that it fails to meet any of the federal pollution standards. Therefore, EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] has banned any further eruptions."

But the Pacific Northwest remains on alert. In Washington State, nearly 6, 000 miles of highway are closed. Air travel, land traffic, and phone communications have been disrupted. Thirty- three vessels are trapped in the Columbia River. Some 150 square miles north and west of the volcano are devastated. And an estimated 1 billion board feet of lumber worth $500 million -- one of the area's major products -- has been lost.

The May 18 explosion was felt as far away as Canada. In the morning hours, military helicopters hovering above Mt. St. Helens spotted overturned cars near a logging camp 12 miles from the mountain. The State Department of Emergency Services reported at least five bodies in the cars. A spokesman said the vehicles were either hit by mud flows or their occupants were overcome by fumes.

Fine ash and pumice boiled out of the volcano's crater and a vent on the mountain's northwest slope. By 9:30 a.m. -- an hour after the blow-out -- the skies were so darkened with soot that automatic street lights switched on in Walla Walla -- about 150 to the east of the volcano.

Rescue missions continued through the week at 14 sites around the mountain, where more than 90 people were reported missing. The death toll had reached 19.

Seismologists in the area noted that earthquake activity was lower than at any time since March 22 -- five days before the mountain awakened from 123 years of dormancy with its initial eruption. They expressed hope that the volcano also was simmering down and not just taking a rest.

Meanwhile, the threat of what could be a devastating dam collapse -- resulting in severe flooding -- hung over the residents of the Toutle River Valley.

At midweek, thick clouds almost obscured a growing Spirit Lake -- formed by Mt. St. Helens 300 years ago -- behind a 20-story high mud wall on the north slope of the volcano. It was impossible to tell whether the natural dam showed signs of cracking and loosing millions of gallons of water down on to the Valley. Endangered were the cities of Longview and Kelso -- 40 miles downstream. More than 50,000 residents were prepared for possible evacuation. However, by Thursday geologists were cautiously optimistic that the earth plug at the outlet of the lake was more secure than earlier believed, and fears of flooding were abated.

USGS geologists, assessing the strength of the dam, explain that it is not a dam in the sense of an earth-fill dam. Dwight Crandall of USGS explained why he thought fears of flood were ungrounded. "This pyroclastic flow filled the entire river valley. It is about 14 miles long." In places, the fill is 200 feet (20 stories) high.

In response to those who feared that the dam was unstable enough to break away, Dr. Crandall speculates that the water is oozing through instead. "If the lake rises higher than the dam, we think the water will just cut a new channel on top of it," he adds.

Hundreds in the immediate vicinity already had evacuated their homes -- resettling temporarily in makeshift lumber camps several hundred feet above the threatened valley. Supplies were brought to them by heliocopter. And the Salvation Army sent in a meal truck.

President Carter's disaster proclamation will allow use of federal funds for relief and recovery efforts.

Farmers and those who grow livestock are among those with the greatest concerns. Agriculture Department officials were unable to estimate what the effects of volcanic ash might be on crops and herds. However, government officials said early reports of high toxicity in the volcanic ash had been modified. It is now considered to be about the same acid content as rain water -- or virtually neutral.

al Halvorson, a soil scientist from Washington State University, said that even if the volcanic ash continued to all for years, it would "probably be more of an irritant than a threat to health and agriculture."

A soil specialist in Montana said the mineral elements of the ash could be some value to farmers.

About 66 percent of the ash cloud consisted of glass-like silica dioxide, another 16 percent was aluminum oxide, with the rest made up of iron oxide, calcium oxide, potassium oxide, and traces of cadmium, iron, copper, and zinc.

However, livestock scientists warned that animals should be given shelter and have water in troughs and tanks changed often. Range grass may not be palatable and feedings of clean hay and sileage was recommended.

The Northwest Cherry Growers Association said they were satisfied that extensive ash fallout in Washington State's lush Yakima Valley will not hurt a near-record crop of sweet cherries. But some orchard owners in this area tried to blow the ash off their trees with their big anti-frost fans.

Some agricultural experts believed that row crops would grow right through the ash.

However, farmers of other crops were not so optimistic. Some show concern that farm machinery will be fouled by the ash and that the ash will crush some crops and bury others.

In the wake of the disaster, diary farmers were forced to dump milk because trucks could not get through to take it to market.

In the farming town of Warden, Wash., Dennis Dean shoveled the ash off the roof of his house while he worried about his crops -- reports Monitor special correspondent Todd Crowell. Farmer Dean estimates that the ash killed his pea crop, but he is not sure about his wheat and alfalfa.

Governor Ray said damage from the volcano and soot was so extensive that the amount could not be readily determined.

Indeed, thousands of people downwind of Mt. St. Helens were hard-pressed to figure out how to get rid of what they are calling "black-snow" -- that dark gray ash that is blanketing everything from their prize rose bushes to Rover's domicide.

By midweek, most people were trying to shovel this stuff off their roofs and on to the street, where snow plows could remove it.

If the ash is just brushed off, it forms a big could of dust, said Sharon Louk, whose family lives about 100 miles northeast of the fuming mountain.

Wetting the ash helps keep the dust down, but then it turns into a kind of cement, she said. Such was the case in Spokane where harried officials finally asked residents to pile the ash for pickup by city crews instead of hosing it down storm drains. The volcanic muck had started to clog the sewers.

Mrs. Louk says: "Nobody really knows what to do, but they feel like doing something.We may be looking at gray for the next two years."

Volcanologists estimate that last Sunday's eruption spewed enough rock and ash to cover a square mile 3,200 feet deep. this is almost as much as Vesuvius poured onto the ancient city of Pompeii in A.D. 79.

Residents of the city of Longview, population 40,000, were being urged to use paper plates, leave clothes unwashed, and forget about doing the dishes because city officials were worried about water shortages. After three days of trying to chip the thick volcanic debris from the city's water treatment facility, officials still had not restored full water service. They brought in emergency pumps and borrowed water from neighboring Kelso as well as from some lumber camps in the area. But water supplies were still short.

"It looked like a game of pick-up sticks, except it was as if someone the size of a mountain was playing," Thomas Chadford told Monitor correspondent Lynde McCormick. He paused for a second, then continued: "ACtually, in a sense that's true. It really the mountain."

Mr. Chadford had taken a helicopter flight over the devastation wrought by the volcano that was once a peaceful, slumbering giant. Many, unlike Mr. Chadford, expressed a mixture of awe and admiration for the power of the volcano.

The small Washington town of Ritzville -- in the eastern third of the state and nearly 200 miles from the volcano -- was covered with five inches of ash. According to town Sheriff Ron Snowden, the fallout resembled a light gray snowfall, and front-loaders were at work scooping it off the street.

With a flourish of the free-enterprise spirit, volcano souveniers hit the streets almost instantaneously. T-shirts and buttons boasting: "I survived Mt. St. Helens" and jars of volcanic ash went on sale.

Postal officials were dismayed that the ash somehow found its way into their letter-sorting machines. People were stuffing envelopes full of ash and sending them to relatives. The post office sent out a plea for Washington, Oregon, and Idaho residents to put the ash in plastic bags first.

From a geological standpoint, the Mt. St. Helens eruption ranks as a major volcanic outburst. But it still is not in the same league with the really big volcanic explosions of the past, says Monitor natural science editor Robert C. Cowen.

Tim Hait of the US Geological Survey has estimated that the initial eruption exploded with the energy equivalent of 50 million tons of TNT (50 megatons) -- 2 ,500 times the energy released by a World War II atomic bomb, Although a mighty blast, it was 6 times less potent that the 1883 explosion of Kratatoa in Indonesia (300 megatons) and 600 times weaker than the gigantic explosion of Santorini (30,000 megatons) about 1500 B.C. which produced the devastation that some experts have identified with the legend of lost Altantis.

The dust released by Mt. St. Helens had created devastation locally. But, again, both in terms of its effect on the ground and in the atmosphere, this ejection of debris is relatively modest. Although geologist still don't know just how much debris has been released -- or how much more may by thrown out -- preliminary "guestimates" run only to a few cubic kilometers. That compares to an estimated 72 cubic kilometers of ejected matter for Santorini and 18 cubic kilometers for Krakatoa. One of the largest volumes of material thrown out in modern times was 150 cubic kilometers when the Tambora volcano exploded on Sumbawa in 1815.

Monitor correspondents Robert Cowen, Lynde McCormick, Peter N. Spotts, and special correspondent Todd Crowell contributed to this report.m

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