Officials face task of mopping up a mountain's remains
The situation had changed dramatically, and Harry Kornbau did not like it, not one bit. He and fellow pilot Ronald Newsome made one last loop around Spirit Lake, cranked up the Chinook helicopter's engines, and sped from under Mt. St. Helen's shadow.
"That was new activity," he said, after we returned to the landing field. "I don't know what it was or what it meant, but I was not about to stick around to find out."
He was referring to two plumes of ash, vigorously shooting 1,500 to 2,000 feet in the air.
Earlier that day, the Army agreed to fly a few journalists over the territory Mt. St. Helens had violently staked out as its own. That afternoon, two big Chinook transport helicopters lifted off with 18 reporters, photographers, and TV cameramen from the United States and overseas in each.
The chopper first took us over land green with rolling meadows and blankets of straight, tall pine trees. But about 20 miles from the volcano we saw the first evidence of the eruption.
The Toutle River was now a mudflat. During the eruption, it had been a raging torrent full of volcanic ash, mud, and debris.
The trees on the river banks were coated with mud up to about 10 feet from the ground. As we moved into the blast area, the 150 square miles immediately affected by the eruption, everything was covered with volcanic ash. The lush green of the Douglas firs now was a dull olive.
About 12 miles from the mountain, once-tall trees lay like sticks on the ground, stripped of branches and bark. At this point, the Toutle River vanished , its valley filled with ash up to 200 feet thick.
Five miles from the mountain, even the fallen trees were gone. The volcanic debris on the leading edge of the eruption flew out of the mountain at about 15 m.p.h., taking with it everything in its path.
Inside the five-mile zone, the scene lacked even the faintest resemblence to what it had been before. Even the contour of the land had changed.
Spirit Lake, which fed the Toutle River, is sandwiched with ash and mud on the bottom and logs and floating pumice on the top. The lake once was one of the scenic jewels of the Northwest.
As far as National Forest Service (NFS) is concerned, says a spokesman, Spirit Lake may be officially demoted to a mud flat. Temperatures just beneath the lake's surface measured 92 degrees F., despite being continually fed by snow runoff from Mt. St. Helens.
The blast removed 1,400 feet of the volcano's top, leaving a crater that plunged 3,000 feet from the new peak. There was a gaping hole where the north side of the crater had been. It formed a U-shaped amphitheater stretching back about a mile into the mountain.
In the wake of this cataclysmic event, federal officials have begun their disaster relief operations. But they admit that the eruption of Mt. St. Helens has left them with a number of unprecedented problems -- for which they have no immediate solutions.
"One of our principle difficulties is the uncertainty about the mountain," says Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) spokesman Bill Logan. "We don't know what it will do, whether it has subsided or still has some activity left in it. It is difficult to manage disaster relief when you don't know whether the disaster is over yet."
His concern was underscored May 25, when Mt. St. Helens spewed steam and ash 40,000 feet into the sky -- its biggest eruption since May 18.
Nor do officials know what the eruption means for other volcanos -- especially Mt. Baker in Washington, Mt. Hood in Oregon, and Mt. Shasta in California -- in the geologically active Cascade Mountain Range.
Transportation in eastern Washington has ground to a halt because of the ever-present ash. The US Department of Transportation has called in experts from General Motors and Ford in hopes of designing special air filters to keep the very fine ash out of engines.
A significant question for the federal government is whether the area's farms can be reclaimed. "We don't have any idea what the ash will do to the soil, or if anything will grow there again," said the official at the disaster center's agricultural aid desk.
A potentially controversial question for the NSF is what to do with the volcano blast area.
President Carter, during his May 22 visit to this area, offered two contradictory suggestions: either salvaging the downed timber or turning the entire area into a national park. The latter excludes the former, and whatever the forest service decides top do will probably raise the hackles of either environmentalists or timber companies.
NFS chief R. Max Petersen has already declared the area a geologic study area , making it out of bounds for any commercial use. At least a dozen scientists have called USGeological Survey since the May 18 eruption asking to come study the area.
The volcano could continue spouting steam and ash "over the rest of our lifetime," comments Dr. Aaron Waters, a University of California volcanologist. He says that temperatures inside the crater will remain hot, and the accumulation of snow and ice inside will prompt continued steam venting. "The sides are steep enough," he added, "so that they will probably fall in, making the crater bigger but shallower."