Grey ash giving way to summer's green in Moses Lake

Life is slowly returning to normal in this small town in the heart of eastern Washington's volcanic ash belt. Ash is still piled up like snowdrits along the sides of the roads, but the roads themselves are clean and city lawns and parks are again a bright green.

Moses Lake is a farming and tourist city of about 11,000 people in central Washington. It is one of the communities hardest hit by the fallout of ash frm the May 18 eruption of Mt. St. Helens.

Officially, about two inches of ash blanketed the city, but you are hard pressed to find anyone in town who will not insist that the ash was at least four inches deep.

Rain has compacted the ash to a depth of a half inch or so and the grass in people's lawns is growing right through it.

But city manager Joe Gavinski wonders what he is going to do with the hundreds of tons of ash the city scraped off the streets in a crash program to get the city open for business again.

Most of it was simply piled in about six huge dumps scattered about town where the city owned vacant land or could get private landowners to let them store the stuff temporarily.

Recently, the city council made an initial payment of nearly $600,000 on the cleanup bill which, along with other volcano-related expenses for the community, is expected to reach about $2.5 million. That is roughly equivalent to the city of Boston getting a cleanup bill of $200 million.

Moses Lake hopes for and counts on getting a lot of the back in federal disaster relief aid, but Mr. Gavinski figures that the city may still have to pay about half the cost out of its own pocket.

Many eastern Washington mayors are complaining that the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which parcels out the funds, is being too strict in interpreting the rules, especially its insistence that local communities pick up at least a quarter of the costs.

Spokane's Mayor Ron Bair spoke for many when he pleaded with federal officials to pay 100 percent of the cleanup costs. "Otherwise, some communities are going to go bankrupt," Mayor Bair told a conference on ash problems in Yakima, Wash., in mid-July.

The sign outside the office of the chamber of commerce building here reads, "Moses Lake is open for business," and there are signs that things are returning to normal.

Overhead the big jets of Japan Airlines make their familiar circles, practicing landings at the Grant County Airport where the airline maintains a training facility. The airline won friends here by donating $50,000 to the city and port district to help pay for the cleanup.

Boeing also maintains a training facility here, but temporarily moved its operations to Montana. City officials expect the airline to return sometime in August.

Like other communities in the Pacific Northwest that depend on tourism for part of their income, Moses Lake is experiencing a dearth of visitors. On a warm, sunny day in early July there were about seven campers at the Pier 4 recreational vehicle park on Moses Lake. It has space for 189.

"Last year it was the gas; this year it's the ash," lamented the park's owner Adolph Bernhardt.

Govt. Dixy Lee Ray flew into Moses Lake in early July to give tourism a boost. At one lakeside resort the spotted an out-of-state visitor.

"You weren't afraid of the mountain, were you?" she askeD.

Around Moses Lake and throughout eastern Washington farmers are beginning the summer harvest.

Depite early reports of agricultural disaster because of the volcano eruption , this year's harvest is actually shaping up to be one of the biggest in years.

By and large the wheat crop is excellent, and even alfalfa hay seems to be making a comeback.

About half of the first cutting of hay around Moses Lake was destroyed by the ash fallout, but extension agent John Burns pointed out that the first cutting represents only about 35 percent of the total production. The second cutting, in progress now, is "looking good," he said.

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