“My District” gives NCSL members a chance to talk about life in the places they represent, from the high-profile events to the fun facts only the locals know.
The most destructive volcanic eruption in U.S. history began on a bright spring Sunday 41 years ago. At 8:32 a.m. on May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens blew 1,270 feet off its peak and spewed 540 million tons of ash into the air. The nine-hour eruption killed 57 people, wiped out plants and animals, leveled forests and blackened the sky for hundreds of miles.
Although the volcano is in western Washington, about an hour’s drive south of the Capitol in Olympia, the wind was blowing east that morning and took the ash cloud with it. As much as 5 inches of the fine, gray ash settled on cities as far east as Ritzville, about 290 miles away. In all, 11 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces received some dust from the blast.
Now, more than 40 years later, the volcano has the potential to erupt again, the U.S. Geological Survey says, and it’s not the only one endangering Americans. The five volcanoes that pose the greatest threat are Kilauea in Hawaii, followed by Mount St. Helens and Mount Rainier in Washington, Mount Redoubt in Alaska and Mount Shasta in California.
What’s it like living in the shadow of a volcano? To find out, we connected with Representatives Ed Orcutt (R), near right, and Peter Abbarno (R), both of whom serve House District 20, which includes much of the massive mountain.
Where were you when Mount St. Helens exploded? What do you remember about the event?
Abbarno: I was only 4 years old when Mount St. Helens exploded. While it did not impact my family directly, my wife’s family tells stories about hearing the explosion and watching ash coming down like snowfall as schools and businesses closed. The ash cloud grounded air travel as well as vehicle travel in many parts of southwest Washington. Airplanes and helicopters couldn’t fly through the thick ash. Vehicles were cut off by flooding and road and bridge damages.
Orcutt: I was 17 years old and a junior in high school—in Maine. I recall watching the evening news and following the stories of the activity on the mountain leading up to and following the May 18 eruption. But I never fully appreciated the magnitude until visiting the area three and a half years later—being at the edge of the blast zone and learning I was 13 miles from the mountain!
How did the eruption change the local economy?
Abbarno: The economic impact of the Mount St. Helens eruption is estimated at $860 million. Industries impacted included tourism, fisheries, timber and farming. More than 4.7 billion board feet of timber were destroyed, and 22 transport vehicles and 39 rail cars were damaged in the blast. In addition, the fishery sector experienced substantial damage, as mudflows and floods killed large numbers of fish, damaged hatcheries and spoiled fish habitat. The first satellite pictures evidencing green vegetation returning to the region were captured in the late 1980s. Tourism is now greater than prior to the eruption, animals have returned and the landscape is turning green again. However, the level of timber destruction, waterway damage, sediment flush in rivers and lakes has forever changed southwest Washington. In eastern Washington, where some crops and farmlands were blanketed in several inches of ash, it was not enough to negatively impact agriculture. According to a report I recently read, 1980 turned out to be a record year for wheat in Washington, and other crops yielded more than in previous years.
Orcutt: The ash mostly blew northeast, but some got into the Toutle River, and the mudflows and most of the damage to homes and private property was in my district. The blast devastated timber, from total devastation to snapping off stems 4 feet in diameter. Some of the trees laid down by the blast were sanded down to sharp spears by the grit of the ash and earth rushing over them, and some were washed down the Toutle, destroying equipment and homes in the way. The ash dulled saw chains and quickly wore out anything with moving parts. Private lands were reforested and have already produced sawlog-quality timber thinned from the replanted stands and sawn at local sawmills beginning in 2005. The mudflow created a large, gravelly sandy plain in the previously steep-sided river valley, which has grown grasses and upon which some willow and alder timber have slowly reestablished. The grass which first established on the mudflow was forage for elk, and the population exploded since no hunting was allowed in the area due to lack of hiding cover.
How does the mountain look now? And how is tourism?
Abbarno: The eruption left a crater on the mountain 1 mile wide and 2 miles long. About 12% of the total mountain was removed by the blast. Mount St. Helens went from an elevation of 9,577 feet to 8,307 feet. It is still a beautiful mountain, just a little shorter. Mount St. Helens was always a tourism destination, but tourism reached a whole new level after the eruption. President Ronald Reagan established the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument in 1982. There are many hiking trails, and limited special permits are issued to hike to the crater.
Orcutt: Scientists continue to monitor and study the effects and recovery of the area. Two of the three visitors centers remain open. Much of the devastation is visible, but vegetation is returning.
What did they do with all that ash?
Abbarno: The ash become part of the landscape and dissipated over time in the wind and into the soil. Unfortunately, ash in waterways damaged fish habitat and left substantial and damaging sediment.
Orcutt: Most of the ash was blown to the east, away from the district. Sand and silt from the mudflow down the Toutle River to the Cowlitz River and the Columbia River was dredged and stored at various locations along the rivers, and the dredge piles are still visible today. A sediment retention structure built a few miles downstream of the mountain filled much more quickly than expected and is being raised to hold more sediment upstream to keep it out of the rivers below.
What else should we know about your district?
Abbarno: The 20th Legislative District is beautiful. The largest portion of the district is the No.1 Christmas tree producer in the state of Washington. Centralia, the largest city in the district, with a population of about 18,000, was founded by George and Mary Jane Washington in 1875. “Our” George Washington was an African American born in Virginia to a slave in 1817. Heading out on the Oregon Trail with his adopted family, George said, “If there’s any decent place in this world, I’m going to find it.” He and his wife found and platted Centerville, later to become Centralia. The residents of the district are very proud of their communities. There is a strong history and tradition of outdoor activities, like hiking, biking, skiing, hunting and fishing, and a natural-resource-based economy remains an integral part for many families. The Mount St. Helens eruption, and later rebirth, is representative of the spirit of southwest Washington and all the people who live here.
Orcutt: The district is very rural, with many small cities, towns and unincorporated communities throughout the countryside. Timber production and processing as well as agriculture are the primary economies of many communities. The district starts at sea level along the Columbia River and rises to 4,500 feet at White Pass and 5,500 to 8,000 feet on several Cascade Mountain peaks. Hunting and sportfishing are ways of life for most. The district includes all or part of 28 school districts, ranging from K-6 and K-8 districts with 50 and 150 students to K-12 schools with 11,450 students. It has the oldest continually operating community college in the state—Centralia College—and the district has the best constituents a representative could serve!
Julie Lays is the former editor of State Legislatures magazine. She retired from NCSL earlier this year.
District 20 is also represented in the Washington Legislature by Senator John Braun (R). These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.