Monday, August 12, 2013

When Mount St. Helens Fell From the Sky

John Moro had come to Missoula from Portland for an extended weekend visit. He was staying across town at Kelly and Bobbie Wilson’s house, but on Sunday, May 18th, he was hanging out with Sally and me.

It was a beautiful spring day in The Garden City. The air was warm, the sky was deep blue, and a few billowy, white cumulus clouds were drifting along, glowing brilliant white in the spring sunshine. That afternoon John and I walked over to West Side Park to bat some fly balls to each other. It wasn’t really crowded (Westside Park never was), but several folks were enjoying the outdoor space the park provided. Winters are long and gray in Missoula. In May spring is starting to pick up speed, and people were glad to get out and enjoy the summer-like weather.

John and I found a wide open space where we could hit fly balls, and run around enough to catch them without disturbing other people. John is tall, athletic, and fleet footed. It didn’t matter how errant I hit a fly ball, he could run it down and suck it up like a vacuum cleaner. That was a good thing, because when I hit fly balls they could go anywhere. John was getting some good exercise chasing down my wild hits, while I was enjoying watching his outfielding clinic.

As I was about to hit a ball to John, I looked at the sky to the west and saw the nastiest cloud ever. It was dark gray, almost black underneath and lighter grey on top. Not brilliant white in the sun like clouds normally are. The bottom hung down in heavy, billowing pendulums. I’d seen a lot of spectacular weather clouds before, but none looked like hell-born malevolent evil the way this one did.

“Man, that’s the weirdest cloud I’ve ever seen. There’s a bad storm comin’ our way,” I said to John with my arms hanging at my sides – soft ball in one hand, bat in the other. I was mesmerized by the grotesque formation filling the western horizon.

At that moment, a pretty girl was peddling by on her fat-tired, cruiser-style bicycle. She was maybe nineteen or twenty, and her long, blond hair was blowing behind her as she rolled by. She had overheard my statement, and without slowing down, she matter-of-factly corrected my statement: “That’s Mount St. Helens’ plume.” And off she rode.

Or maybe it went like this:

At that moment, an attractive thirty-something woman was jogging by. She was tall and thin, and her long, blond pony-tail was bouncing behind her as she ran. She had overheard my statement, and without losing stride, she matter-of-factly corrected my statement: “That’s Mount St. Helens’ plume.” And she was gone.

My memory plays tricks on me, so you choose the version you like better.

“What did she say?” I asked John.
“It’s Mount St. Helens’ plume.”
“What’s Mount St. Helens’ plume?”

“Mount St. Helens’ plume” didn’t have much context for me, so I didn’t immediately think about Mount St. Helens erupting. Sally and I hadn’t paid much attention to news about the mountain. I don’t think it was reported on as much in Missoula as it was in Portland, which is only fifty miles away from the mountain. I was only vaguely aware of the events leading up to the eruption. John and everyone else living in Portland had been getting a steady stream of Mount St. Helens media coverage. News of the earthquakes and ash eruptions that had been going on since March were just about daily there. Portlanders were expecting that something bigger might happen at any time.

“Mount St. Helens. The volcano. It must have erupted.”
“Oh, yeah,” I said slowly and thoughtfully while looking at the ominous, expanding cloud of ash. His explanation was starting to sink in. Mount St. Helens, a vague reference to me up until then, was about to become indelibly imprinted on my consciousness.

Knowing this was not a storm cloud explained why it looked more like a smoky prelude to Satan’s coming.  John and I looked at it for a while, embracing the awe. But we soon shrugged it off to resume our activity, even as it grew larger and came closer. We hit the ball around a while longer then went back to my house. We were going over to Kelly and Bobbie’s for burgers that afternoon, so as nice as the day was, we couldn’t stay at the park forever.

By the time we got over to Kelly and Bobbie’s, the plume had completely covered the valley. It was getting dark hours in advance of sunset. But even as dark as it already was, it continued to get even darker as time went on. The neighborhood bird population had retreated to their nests. This all made for interesting conversation, and that was certainly the topic dejure. As weird as it all was, there was no alarm in our ranks. As far as we knew it would just pass over eventually.

We were starting to eat when our four year old daughter, Molly, noticed her paper plate wasn’t clean.

 “Mommy, there’s spots on my plate.”

Sally looked at Molly’s paper plate and noticed black spots of ash all over it. She thought it was just some of the crust from the grilled burger patty that had fallen on to Molly’s plate.

“It’s just from your hamburger. It’s ok,” Sally told her, and she wiped the spots off.

Within a few seconds, Molly was complaining again.

“Mommy, they’re back.”

Sure enough, Molly’s plate was again covered with spots, and even more than before. Then we looked at our own plates. Ash was settling all over them as well, and it was visible on our food. We brushed it off our hamburger buns. We laughed and talked about it for a short time, maybe not more than half a minute, when suddenly the particles of ash became visible in the air all around us. After about another half a minute, the fallout was getting noticeably heavier.

The ash cloud, once airborne and overhead, was descending on us. It was crashing down rapidly! Those ugly pendulums I saw hanging from the cloud earlier were now surrounding us like a thick fog. The density of the ash had a muffling effect on sound. All the normal sounds like the street traffic and neighbor’s voices were muted and distant. It was even absorbing the sound of our voices, and I think we all started talking a bit louder. And still, the dense, gray cloud grew thicker. The atmosphere was becoming surreal.

The unsettling event was starting to get freaky, and we became concerned. We were questioning if breathing and eating the ash was safe. With very little debate we decided not to risk our safety. Hurriedly, we picked everything up and moved it into the house. Sally didn’t wait around; she grabbed Molly and took her in right away to get her out of the unprecedented pollution.

Within minutes the world outside had become fully enveloped in gloom. It was alarming how quickly the ash cloud had lowered to the ground and how thick it was. Darkness had come early. The streetlights were on. The birds had gone to roost. Visibility was so obscured it was difficult to see to the street from the house.

Kelly turned on the radio to find disk jockeys taking on the ad hoc roll of news anchors. They were frazzled but trying to remain calm. You could tell from their voices that they themselves were kind of freaking out. The news and advice they were handing out was contradictory:

“The ash is ok to breathe.”
“Don’t breathe the ash!”
“Put a dry cloth over your mouth.”
“Put a wet cloth over your mouth.”
“Don’t put a wet cloth over your mouth because the ash will turn to acid!”

Sheesh! This “advice” was coming rapid fire. We didn’t know what to believe, and the local media was itself in a growing panic. They were blurting out anything and everything, right or wrong, verified our not. Sally and I decided we should get to our own house, afraid we might not be able to drive in the stuff if we waited any longer.

We packed up our stuff to leave and said our goodbyes. John, who had planned on going back to Portland the next day, said prophetically “I’ll probably be seeing you. I don’t know if I’ll be able to get out of here.”

On the way home, Molly sat in Sally’s lap. With eyes open wide in astonishment, she took in the surreal experience. Enough ash had already settled on the streets that cars were creating swirling eddies and billowing clouds in their wakes. It was only early evening, and the sun was still up, but you couldn’t tell that. It was ominously dark. The street lights were on, but they looked like faintly glowing orbs suspended above the ground. We got home and rushed into the house to minimize our exposure to any unknown danger. We closed the windows to keep out the menacing ash.

That evening, the television reports and video were astonishing. From devastating lahar flooding on the Tootle River to the massive ash fall in Spokane, we could see how damaging the eruption, flash floods, and ash fall had been elsewhere. In Spokane, just two hundred miles to the west, they were using heavy equipment to clear ash off the streets. The video was shot in the afternoon, yet the scene was illuminated by street lights and headlamps. It was frightening and fascinating the same time. We hoped our ash fall wouldn’t be that bad. We hoped by morning the whole thing would have blown over… literally.

The next day we got up early and looked outside to see the results of the overnight ash fall. We could hardly fathom how our neighborhood landscape had been transformed. Everything, and I mean everything, was covered in a layer of fine gray ash. Color had been sucked from the landscape.

The sky was clear and blue, yet it was different. There was an eerie abnormality in the color and the depth of the sky. It was as if we had woken up on another planet. Looking back, I believe the atmosphere was still infused with mico-particles of ash; ash so fine that gravity had only a minimal effect on it. The suspended ash was too fine to see, but it altered the way light was diffused.

I went into the back yard to collect a sample of ash in a jar. It was strangely quiet outside. My footsteps were muffled and almost silent. There were no birds out. I noticed street traffic was light for a workday; people must have stayed home from work.

Spokane Ash Removal
The news from Spokane said the ash fall there had crippled traffic. Heavy equipment used to clear the streets was breaking down because the ash proved to be lethal to internal combustion engines and exposed mechanical parts. The ash fall in Missoula was only a few inches deep, miniscule compared to what Spokane was dealing with. That was a big relief. It didn’t look like we were going to have any problems. That assumption was incorrect; things were about to get worse – big time!

Our meager ash fall had its own sinister characteristics and associated problems. Gravity had worked like a filtration system on the ash plume. As the ash traveled north and east, the largest and heaviest bits had fallen out first. Coarse, heavy ash fell on Spokane. By the time the plume made it across Washington, northern Idaho, and then over the mountains to Missoula, ash particles left in the plume were fine and light. These feather weight particles were easy to disturb and suspend aloft.

When the rising sun started to warm things up, air began to move from the cool shadows into the sunlight spaces. Those subtle air movements were all it took to raise the ash out of the trees, off the houses, and out of the streets. In minutes the ash was again set aloft and suspended by gentle air movements. The once clear air became choked with the gritty, gray dust. It invaded the house by finding any chink in a window sash, or gap around a door. It got dark outside again. Not as dark as it had been the night before, but dreary and gloomy. The gray fog of ash was so thick we couldn’t see across the street, and barely to the edge of our yard.

From clear skies to total gray-out, by mid-morning conditions had deteriorated severely. On the news we were hearing of cars that had broken down because their air filters were completely clogged, or they were internally damaged by ash. It was like putting sand in the engine. Some people were having hard times breathing. It was obvious the ash was a health hazard, at least to some vulnerable people.

It was becoming a bad situation. So bad that later that morning, Governor Tom Judge declared a state of emergency in western Montana. He established regulations to deal with the situation. Everyone was told to stay in their homes, and ordered to stay off the roads.  Exceptions were to drive to the hospital, the pharmacy, or the grocery store for essentials. If you worked in those places you could drive to work, but that might put one’s car in peril. Bars were on the list of businesses ordered to close. Keeping the bars closed was a “spirited” challenge for authorities.

So there we were, essentially under a modified form of martial law. We were confined to our 720 square foot, 1880’s house. There was no air flow in the house. It was stuffy. In addition, we had an four year old to entertain. As the day went on, it started to get warm in the house… then hot. The walls seemed to close in. We opened our windows and hung wet cotton diapers in the opening to filter the air. There was plenty of breeze outside to suspend the feather-light, St. Helens ash, but not enough to move a significant amount of air through the wet cotton cloth. It was just shy of being miserable, but we got through the day.

The next day was just like the first. That routine would repeat itself for four days. Wake up to clear weather; the sun comes up; the air moves; the ash ascends; we stay indoors.

As John had professed that first night of ash fall, he was still stuck in Missoula, holed up at the Wilsons` house.

On the second day, I took Molly outside. It was early, while the ash was still in repose. I made her put on a dust mask and she didn’t like it. She kept trying to take the mask off, and I kept making her put it back on. Even though the air looked clear, I didn’t want to take any chance on damaging her young lungs. I didn’t know if there were any harmful, suspended particulates that I couldn’t see. It wasn’t worth the risk. I let her walk around in the stuff for a while. I even let her touch it, but we didn’t stay out long. Soon after we went in the ash fog returned. It was gray and it was depressing. I can only imagine what it was like for the people who lived through year after year of the 1930’s dust bowl.

Finally, on the fourth day, the air remained calm. Even as the morning progressed, the breezes that had swirled the ash into a fog on the previous days didn’t materialize. The ash finally stayed put. What a relief! What was to happen next that morning was a surprise and a memorable experience.

The radio stations were reporting that city officials had requested a city wide cleanup. They wanted all Missoulians to go outside and hose down their neighborhoods. They asked us to wash our streets from the middle to the curb. We were advised to borrow hoses from the neighbors if we didn’t have enough length. After hosing off the street, then water down our lawns. Next, spray down the shrubbery and trees. Finally, if possible, hose down the roof.

Unknown Streeker Sweeper
It was a relief to get out of the house. Neighbors that had never spoken to each other were in the streets working together, smiling and waving, and striking up conversations. Everyone was happy to be out of their houses. I thought this was a silly exercise. I believed the ash would soon re-invade the city from the immense region that surrounded Missoula. Thankfully, I was wrong. The strategy worked. Even though the rest of western Montana - the forests, the mountains, the valleys - were left to nature to clean, the ash cloud never returned.

By noon that day, life returned to normal. The governor’s restrictions were lifted and people went back to work. The roads reopened, and John was able to get back to Portland.

The eruption of Mount St. Helens was fatal for 57 people. It caused expensive property damage for many and a temporary ordeal for even more. The effect on those of us living in Missoula was mostly inconvenience. But I can’t dismiss it because it was an unforgettable experience. I would never trade it.


Luke and I
A few weeks ago (June 2013) Sally and I took our grandson, Luke, on a road trip to Mount St. Helens. The Johnston Ridge Observatory sits on a high vantage point across the valley from the mountain and its enormous crater. The observatory provides a spectacular view of this incredibly beautiful mountain, which towers above the landscape. Before the eruption, it would have been even taller; thirteen hundred feet taller!

The day we were there the weather was clear, the sky was blue, with enough billowy, white cumulus clouds to enhance the beauty of the scene, without obscuring the view. It was a day so much like May 18, 1980. We could see inside the eminent, yawning crater left by the eruption.  It is almost impossible to comprehend how huge it is. Downtown Missoula would easily fit inside the crater with room left over. It is incredible to think that much of the earthen mass missing from that gaping wound ended up falling on us five hundred miles away as dust.


When Molly was editing this story, she had some memories of the dinner party at the Wilsons’ abode. She wrote this comment:

I remember complaining about my food and Mom telling me it was normal [the bits of char from grilling were actually volcanic ash]. I KNEW it wasn’t. And, I was right! Four-year-olds “know” a lot of things, but this one thing I was really right about. Beyond the edibility of my burger, I didn’t have any other anxiety or concern regarding the eruption.

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