|Watch Murray's Speech|
For anyone who lived in the Pacific Northwest at the time, May 18, 1980 is a day they will never forget. It was a day that changed lives and the landscape of Washington state forever. It imposed a heavy toll in lost lives and lost habitat. Fifty-seven people were killed. More than 230 acres of forest were leveled in an instant.
The story of Mount St. Helens is a story of destruction. But it is also a story of renewal, a story of science, and a story of the importance of preparation. I rise today to share that story and the lessons it holds for us 25 years later.
Before the Blast
Perhaps the best place to start is before the eruption, when Mount St. Helens was a beautiful and striking feature of our landscape. This photo shows what the mountain looked like beforehand. As you can see, it had a nearly perfect dome. It was recognized as one of the most symmetrical mountains in the world. Mount St. Helens was surrounded by lush forests and beautiful streams and rivers. The area was filled with wildlife of all kinds, but danger lurked beneath that tranquil landscape.
That Fateful Day
May 18, 1980 began as a beautiful, sunny Sunday morning in the Northwest. Below the surface, however, Mount St. Helens was anything but calm. At 8:32am, a 5.1 magnitude earthquake occurred. That earthquake sparked a massive eruption, which would last for nine hours. This photo shows some of what followed.
Within minutes, a massive cloud of ash and toxic gas spouted 15 miles into the air. A 300-mile per hour blast shot from the mountain – knocking down stands of evergreens as if they were matchsticks. The entire north face of the mountain gave way into a massive mudslide. The mudslide carried hot water and debris over the surrounding landscape. The eruption released 24 megatons of energy. It destroyed all forms of life within the 18- mile blast zone, including roughly 7,000 bears, elk, and deer.
The scope of the devastation was enormous. The hot ash from the eruption combined with melting snow at the mountaintop, creating massive mud flows.
This was not just a local event. More than 500 million tons of ash were blown eastward across the United States. 250 miles away in Spokane, Washington, the traveling ash turned day into night. By June, ash could be found on the other side of the world.
Honoring Those Who Died
As we mark this 25th anniversary, I want to pay tribute to the 57 men and women who died on that fateful day. Some were there enjoying the area’s beautiful scenery. Some were drawn to the mountain for scientific study. And others were long-time residents who refused to give up the only homes they’d ever known.
When the dust settled and the mountain quieted, nearly 150,000 acres of public and private land had been destroyed. This photo shows some of the destruction. This stand of trees was blown down.
The mountain's nearly-perfect dome was turned into a crater. The Toutle River, which had been vibrant and green, was now a dark, grey expanse. President Jimmy Carter toured the site. He later remarked, "Someone said this area looked like a moonscape. But the moon looks more like a golf course compared to what’s up there."
Road to Recovery
Everyone knew that wildlife restoration would be a major challenge. Within weeks of the eruption, however, many dedicated foresters and biologists returned to the area to assess the damage and help with the recovery.
One of the strongest leaders in the revitalization has been the Weyerhaeuser Company. Weyerhaeuser lost nearly 68,000 acres of forest, making the company the largest private landowner impacted by the eruption. The company was able to replant over 45,500 acres with more than 18 million seedlings. Weyerhaeuser has been committed to restoring the area through sustainable forestry. 25 years later, many of the trees planted in the wake of the eruption are now ready for thinning. Final harvesting will begin in another 20 years, paving way for the forest cycle to recommence. The U.S. Forest Service made similar efforts. On 14,000 acres of National Forest land, the Forest Service has planted nearly 10 million trees since 1980.
In August 1982, Congress established the 110,000-acre Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. The monument allows unhindered natural growth and serves as a resource for visitors and academics.
Signs of Life
Within weeks of the eruption, signs of life literally sprouted through the layers of destruction. As forests were replanted and vegetation again took root, the wildlife also began to return. Roosevelt elk and Columbia black-tailed deer, for example, along with small birds and mammals, reestablished their habitats. Today the area is a testament to the enduring circle of life, as green hills surround the crater, and blue waters flow through the valley once again.
A Wealth of Knowledge
As the ecosystem rebuilds, we are constantly reminded of the wealth of knowledge available from the monument itself. Thousands of people have been drawn to the mountain to bear witness to the evidence of this power and to learn from its effects. For many, the eruption sparked a new interest in the earth sciences. It has provided new insight on seismology and volcanology, helping students and scientists to better understand the earth’s natural movement. Representatives of the U.S. Geological Survey have teamed with researchers at local and national universities to process the data and to continue monitoring movement beneath the ground. Teachers from across the country have brought hundreds of student groups to the Forest Service's three visitor centers. There, students study the eruption and the reemerging wildlife. What was once a bleak scene of destruction is now a living monument and an educational resource.
Need to Improve Monitoring
Although 25 years have passed, there is still much we can learn from the eruption of Mount St. Helens.
Just last fall, we were reminded that we haven't heard the last from this mountain. After 18 years of relative quiet, a series of small quakes have occurred in October. And in March, just two months ago, the mountain released a 36,000 foot plume of steam. Today, inside the crater, the lava dome continues to grow. That is a sure sign that there is far more activity to come.
The most important lesson we can learn from the eruption is the need to improve our warning and response systems. While we may never be able to fully protect surrounding communities, we can help reduce the risk. For months before the 1980 blast, scientists from the USGS had monitored Mount St. Helens and were able to predict that an eruption was likely in the near future. As a result, most people stayed away from the mountain. We must continue to support the efforts of the scientists and local officials who keep us all safe.
High Risk Volcanoes
Unfortunately, according to a recent USGS report, monitoring of high-risk volcanoes in the U.S. leaves much to be desired. Of the 169 volcanoes, 55 qualify as being a "high risk" for eruption. After Kilauea in Hawaii, Mount St. Helens ranks second on the list of high-risk peaks. Mount Rainier, also in Washington state, is ranked third, followed by Mount Hood in Oregon and Mount Shasta in California. Millions of people live near these mountains, making their monitoring and study a critical undertaking.
I want to personally commend the hundreds of dedicated scientists and local, state and federal officials who are keeping a close eye on these mountains in Washington state. Their work is helping to ensure that the public is better prepared for any future disaster.
We can honor those who died 25 years ago by learning from the eruption and improving our ability to predict and respond to natural disasters. While we have been fortunate not to have a major eruption in the U.S. since Mount St. Helens, the tsunami tragedy in Asia once again reminded us of the power of events beyond our control. We know there is more to come, so together, let's make sure we are well-prepared, and our communities are well-protected.