Longview, Wash. — A nasty "Old Man on the Mountain" has painted this town a grim gray. People -- when they leave their homes at all -- scuttle down near-vacant streets with a hand or handkerchief over mouth and nose. Passing autos, their headlights peering through the eerie leaden atmosphere, send up swirls of ash.
Mt. St. Helen's encore this week demonstrated that the rumbling volcano has far from finished her performance. In fact, scientists say, the mountain's second major belch May 25 could be one of a rude series lasting years.
But for the folks in Longview, Kelso, and the other towns along the Cowlitz River in Washington State, the more immediate concern is tons of volcanic ash that continue to cover everything. Light rain can turn it from fine powder to concrete.
Some, like retired timberman Vince Bousquet, go at the crust with brooms, then wooden sticks, then shovel . . . then give up. An hour's drive south in Portland, Kathryn and Frank Butler hose down their green Chevy pickup (the one with the "Keep Oregon Green" mudflaps) and hope the ash will not crush the peonies.
Until Sunday, prevailing winds had driven the mountain's outpouring over eastern Washington and on to the Atlantic Coast. Portland and the other cities west of the mountain had been spared. The second eruption, while considerably smaller, spread ash over a 12,000-squre-mile stretch of the North- west coast from Seattle to Eugene, Ore.
Downtown Portland was cordoned off while city workers in respirators and masks used high-pressure fire hoses to blast the ubiquitous ashen crust from streets and sidewalks. The ports of Portland and Vanccouver, Wash., continue to lose $5 million a day s the US Army Corps of Engineers hurriedly dredges the debris from the Columbia River. They have removed 300,000 of an estimated 15 million cubic yards.
The threat of flooding has subsided considerably along the Cowlitz River. But water continues to be a problem in this typically rainy part of the country. Silt has raised the river bottom as much as 15 feet and clogged filtration devices. A power failure following Sunday's eruption knocked out the pumps that fill reservoirs.
"It's all right for people to wash their cars, but we don't want them washing their houses," says Longview Mayor Jack McCullough.
Officials at the Weyerhaeuser Company area office here have only a vague notion of the volcano's effect on their 473,000-acre St. Helens tree farm. "We haven't even found all of our equipment yet," says Weyerhaeuser spokesman Murray Mason.
Unlike Hawaiian volcanos, which have a smoother and more continuous flow of material, those in the Pacific Northwest are inclined to hold back, then let loose more violently.
"This type of lava is not so fluid," says US Geological Survey geologist Mary Hill. "It's a lot stickier and therefore tends to act like a cork in a bottle.
This is what happened May 25, and it may well happen again. The last time St. Helens became active -- in the 1830s -- it erupted 14 times over a 25-year period. None of those eruptions was as great as the May 18 one, however. Minor earthquake activity inside the mountain continued early this week.
"The geologists expect this kind of throat- clearing, and it may go on for weeks or months or years," observed Officer Curtis Hanson of the Multnomah County division of public safety in Portland. Following Sunday's eruption Washington Gov. Dixy Lee Ray extended the restricted zone around Mt. St. Helens from five miles to 20 miles.