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Planning, Coordination Have Come a Long Way Since Eruption of Mount St. Helens

When Mount St. Helens erupted 35 years ago, officials were ill-prepared for the magnitude of the emergency.

by Kate Prengaman, Yakima Herald-Republic / May 18, 2015
Officials say the eruption and the disorganized response prompted the development of planning and response protocols that have made the region more prepared for a future eruption. (NOAA News Photo)

(TNS) — When Mount St. Helens erupted 35 years ago Monday, killing 57 people and blanketing much of Central Washington in ash, officials were ill-prepared for the magnitude of the emergency.

“When the mountain blew, everyone was kind of out there on their own,” said Charles Erwin, emergency management specialist for the city of Yakima. “That’s what got the county started on doing disaster planning and coordinating with all the local jurisdictions.”

The explosion caused two different disasters on either side of the mountains. While the west side was dealing with mud and debris flows taking out bridges and roads, the prevailing winds pushed an estimated 520 million tons of ash eastward, turning Sunday morning in Yakima into midnight.

Local, state and federal officials say the eruption and the disorganized response prompted the development of planning and response protocols that officials say have made the region more prepared for a future eruption — because it’s only a matter of time before the volcano erupts again.

“We know we have recharge of magma chamber right now,” said Carolyn Driedger, scientist with the Cascade Volcanoes Observatory. “We’re fairly confident that the monitoring equipment we have there now will give us about as good a warning as we can get that there is magma rising. We could have an eruption with a few days of warning; it could be 100 years from now.”

And Mount St. Helens isn’t the only volcano Washington has to worry about. Mount Adams, Mount Rainier, Mount Baker and Glacier Peak are also capable of producing destructive mud and debris flows, known as lahars, and spewing ash.

Although Mount St. Helens has the most recent and most destructive activity, all five have generated ash or lahars in the past 300 years, according to the state’s hazard mitigation plan.

But in Yakima County, the primary danger is ash, according to the county’s emergency management plan.

Countless tons of it fell across much of the county during the 1980 eruption. It clogged waterways and cut visibility on roads to levels so dangerous that highways were closed for days. Merely walking in it kicked up clouds of ash.

Inhaling ash can cause lung damage, especially for those with existing respiratory conditions. Volcanic ash is acidic and when it combines with water it can create a form of sulfuric acid that can, in some cases, be strong enough to burn skin, damage crops and corrode machinery.

Preparing to deal with ash is the most important thing communities in Yakima County can do, Erwin said.

“What we’re trying to do again, since it’s far from people’s memory now, is to encourage all the cities to have plans for clearing ash from the streets and where to dump it and how to answer citizens’ questions about what to do with it,” Erwin said.

He recommended that all area residents add dust masks and goggles to their emergency kits to be prepared for an ash event.

Across the state, communities at risk from volcanoes work together on coordinated response plans, said Mark Stewart, spokesman for the Washington Military Department’s Emergency Management Division.

Each plan is different because each volcano is different, he said.

“Our five volcanoes have what I would call a different eruptive personality,” Stewart said. “We all know Mount St. Helens is a big exploder. Mount Rainier, on the other hand, is a lahar producer, and hundreds of thousands of people live in harm’s way of those lahars.”

One coordination plan addresses both St. Helens and Mount Adams, because the at-risk areas overlap. It’s developed by the Forest Service, state and federal geologists, and the emergency management officials from the surrounding tribes and counties, including Yakima and Klickitat.

The plan divides up responsibilities and channels of communication. For example, the Forest Service will make road closures as needed to protect public safety, and the state Emergency Management Division will coordinate the use of aircraft for emergency responses.

This multi-agency response plan simply didn’t exist 35 years ago, said Doug Ficco. When St. Helens blew, Ficco was a maintenance engineer with the state Department of Transportation from Southeast Washington to Southwest Washington, where he was trying to figure out how to save bridges from the vast amounts of water and debris gushing down from the mountain. Now as a DOT regional administrator in Vancouver, he said much has changed in terms of disaster preparedness.

“Back then, we didn’t do a lot of pre-planning for emergencies. We didn’t have relationships in place with the Corps of Engineers and the National Guard,” Ficco said. “It was a little chaotic.”

Now, he said, multi-agency emergency drills are part of the routine.

Putting the response plans into action starts with observational data of the volcanic activity from the Cascades Volcano Observatory, which is run by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Driedger said the 1980 eruption also triggered increased investment in monitoring equipment for the mountain and more research to understand what’s normal volcano behavior and what’s a warning sign that an eruption could be imminent.

“That eruption really changed the way we as scientists do business; we realized we need to work with emergency managers,” Driedger said. “We can draw a direct line from the St. Helens eruption to those coordination plans and awareness that we know today.”

Advances in volcano monitoring and communication technology mean that the region is more prepared today to get people out of harm’s way in time before an eruption, Stewart said.

“I have a high level of comfort that if it should happen again, procedures are in place to get critical infrastructure up and running and keep people safe,” Erwin said of Yakima County’s response plan.

But even with preparations to protect water supplies and power substations, and plans to get the roads cleared quickly, ash is still likely to cause problems.

In 1980, farmers were worried about the potential impacts to crops and there was little information about how best to respond. “It was such an unknown. Very few people have gone through being covered up by volcanic ash,” recalls Alan Taylor, who was then sales promotion manager for Northwest Cherry Growers in Yakima. “Going through that was all uncharted territory in agriculture.”

He said farmers tried a variety of techniques to remove the ash from crops quickly and to quell rumors that the ash could poison the cherry crop. But he said the biggest lesson farmers learned probably wasn’t how to be prepared, but realizing that sometimes Mother Nature just has the upper hand.

There are so many variables to a potential eruption — from what time of year to how much ash — that the ideal response from the industry will just depend on the conditions, agreed James Michael, vice president of Marketing for the Washington Stone Fruit Commission.

“In the case of the mountain blowing up, it’s not an exact science,” Michael said. “The technology in our industry is changing so rapidly that it’s hard to predict, but some of those investments in cleaning and washing technology could help salvage fruit after an incident.”

Driedger said the way Eastern Washington handled the ash challenge in 1980 provided a lot of important insight for scientists about the best way to protect water supplies and coordinate cleanup efforts.

“It was really the first modern eruption in U.S. history, and the people in Eastern Washington made a worldwide contribution by documenting their experiences in 1980,” she said. “One really important thing as we move on in time from that memorable eruption is that memory really needs to be transmitted down through time so future generations don’t forget that these are active volcanoes, and you need to be prepared for them to act up from time to time.”

©2015 Yakima Herald-Republic (Yakima, Wash.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.