This isn't simply a retelling of the day Mount St. Helens erupted and killed 57 people. It is the story of everything that came before, the stripping of the land, the greed, and a governor who did not do anything to protect those who lived or travelled near the mighty volcano.
I can never pass up a book about a natural disaster. I think what I am drawn to is that nearly every time, there are things that could have been done to prevent a horrible loss of life. Not always, but in many cases. Usually we also find that so and so knew of the dangers, and for one reason or another, failed to inform the public to protect their own interests, money, etc. This eruption occurred three years before I was born, so that is yet another reason I am fascinated by Mount St. Helens - it is an event that marked a clear before and after of the area and people it impacted.
A little background quick for those unfamiliar with the event/not from the US:
In 1980 there had been literal rumblings for months that Mount St. Helens in Washington (the state) was going to erupt. Scientists were keeping careful track of the stratovolcano that was part of a massive volcano chain connected to the Cascadia fault which runs for 700 miles along the western coast of the US. On that fateful day in May when she finally erupted, it was any event that had been witnessed in a very long time. The entire top of the mountain disappeared with the force of the eruption, hundreds of miles of forests were decimated, and ash covered eleven states as well as five provinces in Canada. Dozens of people were killed, even miles from the summit. It completely stunned everyone with a stake in the game.
Yet, as survivors, scientists, journalists, and politicians began to sift through the destruction, the victims and survivors alike were blamed for their deaths, injuries, and misfortune. The public was told that they'd ignored road blocks and warnings, chose to put themselves in harm's way for a day of fun, a week of camping, whatever. This could not have been further from the truth.
The book is divided into seven parts to explain in great detail the before, during, and after of the eruption. And when I say 'great detail', I truly mean it. The amount of research here is extraordinary.
The very beginning offers us a look into the two months prior to May's violent eruption. We meet scientist Dave Johnston, a volcanologist tracking all that was going on with the sleeping giant. That March, she was slowly waking up and Johnston was keeping tabs on what was happening, and also projecting what could be coming in the near-future. Several small earthquakes preceded the big event, and on March 27th, after hundreds of earthquakes within the prior 11 days, the first eruption occurred, albeit much smaller than what was to come on May 18th. At this point we are also introduced to the Weyerhaeser logging company who owned vast tracts of land all over the area. When the March eruption occurred, there were approsimately 300 loggers working the area and they pulled back immediately. When the volcano quieted, they were sent right back to work, clearing the old growth trees, making what was to come even worse. The author takes time to go back even farther in time though, giving us a whole history of the area dating back to when European explorers first came to the area, destroying much of it to clear the land for profit.
Part two explores those two months in which the earthquakes and minor eruption occurred. Geologists gave repeated ignored warnings about what could be coming. Johnston and others were there to study what was happening, yet were completely ignored by the governor and others who could have done literally ANYTHING to keep people safe. Some of the studies showed just how powerful an eruption from Mount St. Helens could be, finding ash and pumice from previous eruptions several miles from the volcano. As the massive bulge on the north face of the volcano grew considerably, causing scientists to try to amplify their warnings, the governor did nothing. People were told it was safe. They continued their camping and hiking throughout the area, never knowing until it was too late the danger they were in. Had warning been given, it would have impacted the logging going on, and we all know how big businesses hate to lose profits.
In this section we also meet several individuals and families in the area who are there for work or pleasure. Young families camping, scientists studying the volcano, and those who had lived in the area for years. This is a great segue into part three which details conservation efforts and more about those in the immediate impact zones. At this point the author provides a map and list of those we've read about, showing who was in the area and would become the first victims.
In parts four and five detail the eruption itself and the rescue/recovery efforts after. We get a whole slew of perspectives - the final moments of many of the 57 victims, as well as the efforts of survivors to, well, survive. With the eruption occurring on a Sunday, the area was not nearly as populated as it might have been. On any given weekday, the mountain was the worksite of hundreds of loggers. While any death toll is unacceptable, it also could have been much worse. Rescue efforts were at many times hampered by the far-reaching devastation - mile after mile of railroad and highway destroyed. The flooding that came afterward also did not help.
The final two parts of the book cover what has happened in the years since the devastation of May 18th, 1980. Conservationists and logging owners went head-to-head, battling for the land that had just been decimated. The conservationists eventually won, and a national monument was created around the volcano, encompassing over 100,000 acres of land. This land is protected and has allowed for great study and insight into how ecosystems recover from such devastating events.
I admit that the beginning was far less interesting to me, and at times I had to skim. This does not mean that the early section on logging is not important - it is crucial in understanding the hows and whys of the governor's actions. But there came a point for me where I 'got' it and wanted to move on to the next section. Even so, it was a well-written and engrossing account. I was also impressed with the bibliography provided and will look into several of the titles and sources mentioned there. This is an excellent account and one that I feel anyone with an interest in natural disasters would find riveting, and especially those who live in the shadow of the giant.
I found this quote to be of special interest and will end with it, as it relates specifically to the victims of the eruption. I've included links with peoples' names so you can learn more about them, if you so desire. For nearly four decades the victims been blamed for their own deaths, and it is far past time to lay those accusations to rest.
"But blaming the dead misrepresents the facts and insults the memory of the victims. It doesn't even make sense. Was ham radio operator Gerry Martin, perched above South Coldwater Creek to warn others of an impending eruption, breaking the law? Would the Killians break the law to go camping at Fawn Lake when they couldn't even see the volcano from there? If the volcano had blown up twenty-four hours later, would the hundreds of loggers who would have died be responsible for their own deaths? No one was acting illegally because there was no law to break. None of the people camping around Mount St. Helens that morning went around the roadblock on the Spirit Lake Highway. And because the red and blue zones ended at the Weyerhaeuser's property lines, police officers did not even try to keep people off the Weyehaeuser land. The extension of the blue zone sitting on Dixy Lee Ray's desk Sunday morning would have helped get people out of the danger zones, but who nows if she would have signed it. She later said that she didn't believe in the blue zone: 'It's like, you can't be half pregnant...You have a place you say people should stay out of, but not a sort of half-assed place, where they might and they might not. I never did accept the concept of a blue zone.' Only three people were in the red zone, and two of them - Bob Kasewater and Beverly Wetherald - had permission to be there. In fact, the only person who broke the law was the one person who emerged from the disaster with his reputation relatively enhanced: Harry Truman" (54%).