“Volcano’s Eruption Finds Members Coping,” Ensign, Aug. 1980, 71–72
Interviews with three stake presidents in the wake of Mount St. Helens’s eruption in Washington find the members coping well, helping their neighbors, and rethinking their preparations for the future.
President W. Lee Robinson of the Longview Washington Stake reports that his stake, very close to the volcano, suffered the greatest physical damage from the first eruption on 18 May, when mudslides reshaped rivers’ courses and demolished homes like matchsticks.
Kelso Ward, aware of the danger, had prepared contingency plans to move members from low-lying areas to higher ground if the need arose. “When that wall of water started coming down the river, the contingency plan went into effect,” he says. “There were a few problems when bridges were either washed out or closed because they were unsafe, but the plan basically did work. By late afternoon all of our people were either accounted for or located.” He praised the priesthood for its organization, particularly the home teachers.
No attempts were made to transfer food storage items to high ground. “We relied on what the hosts had, and it was more than adequate,” he says. “But we’ve been doing some re-evaluation since then and most of us have decided that we wouldn’t be prepared for a long emergency. Water was one of our most critical items. We were never without water but we were being rationed. It made us think again about what we needed.”
In addition to the shock of the physical destruction, President Robinson reports depression because of “the ash and the darkness. When the sun doesn’t shine, you start to think pretty gloomy thoughts.”
The bright side of the situation was the greater unity of ward members. Bishop Steven H. Pond of Kelso Ward set an example for his people by taking in his nonmember neighbors when they found themselves in difficulty.
And plans for the future? “We’re going to reevaluate what happened and make it the subject of one of our leadership meetings with the elders quorum presidents and bishops.”
The Spokane Washington Stake is “290 miles away from Mount St. Helens as the crow flies and we could never have imagined that something that far away could spew so much material so far,” marvels Stake President Mark R. Bickley. The Spokane area, more fortunate than some of the areas south, received about .8 inches of ash.
“I’d been in personal priesthood interviews all day and hadn’t even heard that the volcano had erupted,” he recalls. “Someone finally told me that a big black cloud was headed our way. When I went home at three, it was starting to get dark and I turned on my headlights. In a few minutes, it was pitch black.”
For the next three days, Spokane was in a state of emergency with all of the businesses closed down. “After the initial shock,” he says, “we realized that the real damage was around the volcano and that we could cope with it. The major problem is the ash. It just won’t go away. It’s so fine and so heavy that even rain won’t soak it down.”
The problems were complicated by an initial shortage of information. First came a report that the ash would produce a sulphuric acid that would take the finish off cars. “That turned out to be false. Then they said it was abrasive. That turned out to be true. When we wiped it off the cars, we had to be careful of the finishes.” Another report suggested the possibility of silicosis from the silicon content; presently it seems that the silicon content is not high enough to constitute a danger.
“After it was all over,” summarizes President Bickley, “we realized that we had had a surprising experience and a frightening experience, but the Saints in the area took it very well. Most of them were prepared to stay home for a long period of time and their food storage was in good shape; it’s something we’ve stressed here for a number of years.
“But at a stake conference soon after—Elder James E. Faust of the Quorum of the Twelve was a visitor—it was discussed a great deal and we decided that the Lord was trying to tell us something—that we needed to be better prepared to cope physically and spiritually with disasters.”
For Lew Judd Allsop, president of the Yakima Washington Stake, the eruption also came as a complete surprise. A civil engineer by profession and an apple grower on the side, President Allsop was stunned by “the amount of material that blew out.” His area, about eighty miles from Mount St. Helens, received between a half and three-quarters of an inch. Stores were closed for a week. There was a heavy fall of the tiny apples. President Allsop, on the outskirts of the dustfall, “rigged up my sprayer and got my trees cleaned off right away and I haven’t noticed any particular damage, but they tell us that the color will be affected later.”
Disposing of the ash, a gritty and grimy job, actually brought the people closer together. “The city officials set cleaning up the downtown as the first priority and told people in the residential areas to get organized before they got there. People were asked to elect a block captain, clean off their roofs and sidewalks, push the ash into the parking lanes (away from the curbs, so the equipment could come and pick it up), and keep it wetted down. People were out on the streets with brooms, shovels, wheelbarrows, and hoses. They did more talking to each other and got to know each other better.
“And people worked together. There was some concern about food because the roads were blocked. We couldn’t drive faster than five or ten miles an hour with our lights on and the windshield wipers going all the time. But people worked together with a real good spirit and there were very few emergencies.”
Meanwhile, nearly every vacant lot has an ash mound on it. “It took between sixty and seventy people five or six hours to get the ash off the top of the stake center and piled up from the parking lot. There are thousands and thousands of tons.”
President Allsop feels that the people in his stake “really feel with the people who were in America at the time of the Crucifixion. We knew what it was, we knew what was causing it, but it was still frightening. If you hadn’t known, it would have been terrifying.”