Unpredictable Mt. St. Helens is making it hard to get everyday life back to normal in America's Northwest volcano belt. When the volcano cut loose with a series of eruptions July 22, it emitted an almost continuous stream of steam and ash. But this activity differed substantially from the titantic blast of May 18.
Responding to earlier seismic activity -- similar to that which preceeded the big eruption, but much less intense -- authorities ordered all people removed from the mountain's vicinity.
While the white smoke plume dominated the sky from as far as Seattle, initial reports from communities downwind of the volcano indicated the ash fallout was light -- a "salt-like dusting." This is in marked contrast to the heavy ash fall tht incapacitated communities as far away as Missoula, Mont., following the mountain's earlier outburst.
The July 22 activity was centered on the northern face of the mountain -- that blown out by the earlier eruption. A flow of hot ash, mud, and rock was seen in the area.
Vulcanologist Al Eggers of the University of Puget Sound says he believes Mt. St. Helens may continue to erupt in this fashion for months, perhaps even years. This belief is shared by a number of other volcano experts.
Such a prolonged period of uncertainty about just what the volcano will do, and when, is not helpful to the economy of a region long regarded as one of the most environmentally hospitable in the United States.
The last prolonged period in which St. Helens eruptions occurred was 1842-57. There was nothing then like the "big bang" of May 18, but even if there had been the consequences would have been much simpler. The people in the area would have fled the scene for a while, helping each other in the face of adversity, and gradually returned and rebuilt as the mountain calmed down.
Not so today. In a little over 100 yers, the network of social instrumentalities had thickened greatly. Political and economic ties extend from the communities in the area -- Randle, Amboy, Hood River, Goldendale, Yakima -- to the state capitls of Olympia and Salem.
Physically illusory boundaries demarcate federal from state and private land, extending lines of political power all the way to Washington, D.C.
Radio waves and telephone lines brough the sight of the eruption and the words of those who suffered to the homes of millions.
Thus, the eruption, besides affecting a few thousands of people directly, altered the lives of many thousands more indirectly. Scores of human organizations, agencies, and institutions are involved.
The situation has its bizarre aspects. One might wonder, for instance, how a photograph of Washington Gov. Dixie Lee Ray, decked out in fishing togs and hip boots and smiling over the silver trout she has just caught, could be related to the devastation wrought by Mount St. Helens.
The fishing trip was part of the governor's effort to help out the languishing state tourist industry. Tourism, a major contributor to the state economy, is down 10 to 20 percent.Nearby areas of Oregon, particularly Portlnd, are similarly affected.
In actuality, only a portion of Washington and Oregon were affected by the eruption. Seattle got virtually no ash. In eastern Washington, where the ash fell heaviest, big trucks still kick up ghostly wakes of ash by the side of the highway, but the pavement is clean and the ash is a only a minor nuisance to travelers. And the July 22 eruption added a little to the ash accumulation.
Still, the negative misimpression altered the lives of 60 print and broadcast journalist from from as far away as Honolulu and New York City. They dined on Dungeness Crab in a downtwon Seattle skycraper July 10 because United Airlines and Western International Hotels thought that the resulting press coverage might allay the concern of potential tourists.
Then, there is the controversy over the trees blown down by the big blast -- thousands of them, stacked like jackstraws at the base of the mountain.
As the once-green needles dry out and become an increasing fire hazard, Congress -- among others -- debates their fate. Rep. James Weaver (D) of Oregon proposed legislation that would give the US Forest Service authority to conduct salvage sales and being rehabilitation work in the area of the volcano.
Meanwhile, the Forest Service launched a million-dollar aerial and grond effort to prevent the hundreds of small fires smoldering in the area from flaring into a major conflagration.