Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Pass

On May 18, 1980, anyone of any decent age, remembers Mount St. Helens erupted. And, like me, many in the Pacific Northwest were awaken to it, even as far as Eugene, Oregon where I was living, and farther by the sound and ash as the eruption spread throughout the region. I remember the sound thinking it was the garbage folks, but a minute or so later realized they don't work on Sundays. It only took turning on the television to realize what had happened.

What few folks may not know is that another small eruption happened a week later, the next Sunday morning. In between emergency search and rescue folks were busy trying to find and evacuate people along with the many scientists and other people trying to evaluate the event and the scene. And in between the folks at the USGS office in Tacoma, Washington were on the phones trying to assemble teams to conduct field studies.

When I went to work in between the eruptions our office chief got a call wanting to know if anyone had the interest to do the field work to assess the event, scene and damage the eruption caused. Both the lead technician, Mike Crimrine, and I quickly volunteered. We didn't give it a second's thought to go. And Monday the 26th we were on the road to Tacoma to join the other USGS technicians and professionals.

But there was a problem the USGS has to resolve first. After the May 18th eruption, since the land was under the jurisdiction of the US Forest Service and Weyerhauser Timber company, the authorities declared a "red zone" surrounding the mountain partrolled by the Washington State Patrol and National Guard. To gain access into the red zone, outside of those agencies and the USFS, you had to have a pass. I got mine May 29th (photo above).

Since the USGS's Geologic Division was the arm of the USGS monitoring the mountain since it first began to spew smoke and ash about six month earlier, the geologists were the folks in charge for the USGS. The hydrologic technicians, like myself then, and hydrologists were called geologist to keep things simple for those checking our id's and passes. No one argued or disagareed, and let us proceed to do our work.

And so I spent the next two weeks working just inside and around the red zone on the team installing satellite telemetry equipment and another doing cross-sections of the North Fork Toutle River, since I was a newer employee, while the more experienced one were in the upper North Fork Toutle River basin doing the same work. Every one of us has some stories, some funny and some serious, even life threatening, about the work we did.

I can even show friends the few pages in the USGS Report on the eruption where the data our team collected was published, pages 470-477. There was a lot more data not included in the report, some of which was more interesting personally but maybe not scientifically or significantly enough to include in the chapter on the ash flow.

Near the last day of the work, one of the senior scientist gave small groups of technicians rides up the North Fork Toutle River, around the mountain and into the crater, and return. I had friends who had to pay for rides around the red zone - since the air space and land were off-limits to non-essential aircraft and people, so this experience was a joy to talk about later. The benefits of volunteering when asked and working when needed.

It was, still is and will always be one of those experience you really had to be there to understand. I haven't forgotten.