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 When (Natural) Disaster Strikes


By Rowe Findley

My article on Washington State’s Mount St. Helens in the May 2000 issue continues a long line of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC stories about the impact of volcanism on our planet and its effects on human life. The awesome and abrupt changes caused by eruptions are of compelling interest to all of us, in part because they help us understand the dynamic forces that shape our world.

Back in the spring of 1980 the impending Mount St. Helens eruption in a populated area was like a magnet for people across the United States and beyond, a real-life, real-time drama for which no scripts existed to tell public officials, the general public, or the media what to do and how to do it. Geologists familiar with such volcanoes gathered field data, but there could be no fast and finite answers, and the best forecasts had to be hedged because of the unknowns.

On assignment for NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, I arrived on the scene amid that initial uncertainty. What was actually going on deep inside the Earth? As localized earthquakes continued and Mount St. Helens’s north side began to bulge, there was growing certainty that rising magma would eventually surface, but when—and in what magnitude?

On May 18, 1980, the area had its answer—some 230 square miles (596 square kilometers) of idyllic northwestern forests destroyed; streams choked or dammed by heavy ashfall; devastating loss of homes, farms, and mountain cabins; timber camps littered by tumbled trucks and giant cranes; whole populations of wildlife wiped out—and 58 people dead. In a few awesome moments the Earth had been made new, on a scale beyond the comprehension of those of us who saw it. Surely we had been transported from our beautiful Earth to some brooding ash heap of a planet far away.

Now, 20 years later, I rejoice to see advancing beachheads of trees, grasses, and shrubs reclaiming what was lost. In summer gardens of wildflowers fringe the excellent new roads that draw throngs to lofty visitor centers. Mount St. Helens, mottled with snow and often aswim in clouds, presides over it all.

But what about the people who lost family or friends and those who had loved the high country’s beauty? Wounds to the mind vary in impact and longevity and are often invisible to others. During my recent revisit to the area, I found my friends there doing well and moving ahead with their lives. But some said they dreaded the days of mid-May, when newspapers and TV and public observances of the anniversary stir up the past. It made me realize that all the media should be sensitive to such feelings and not recycle old tragedies casually, especially when there are survivors in their audiences.

All of this has given me a better insight into the psychological problems of others. For those who have never known such battles, it is often hard to empathize with an afflicted person who physically appears whole and healthy. But those who wear an arm sling or a head bandage get instant sympathy. Disasters in recent years—both natural and human-made—have spurred the realization that many of those affected need guidance and support, and disaster counseling is an expanding field.

As the years pass I find that there is almost universal interest in volcanoes. I recently walked among the crowds on the viewing terraces at the Mount St. Helens visitor centers. Many of the conversations I heard were about witnessing the big eruption in 1980. It’s an event like Pearl Harbor or the assassination of JFK; people remember exactly where they were at those points in time. Those who shared the experience feel a special bond, like soldiers who faced combat together.

Perhaps you have a volcano story or other natural-disaster experience you’d like to share.

Contribute, or read, accounts of nature’s fury in our natural disaster forum.

Read an excerpt of Findley’s classic St. Helens article, and hear a photographer’s recollections.

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