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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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‘Nobody had an answer’: When Spokane found itself buried in volcanic ash 40 years ago, it struggled to respond

City crews used fire hoses to clean up the ash from Mount St. Helens in downtown Spokane on Riverside Avenue. (J. Bart Rayniak/The Spokesman-Review)
City crews used fire hoses to clean up the ash from Mount St. Helens in downtown Spokane on Riverside Avenue. (J. Bart Rayniak/The Spokesman-Review)

Schools and businesses shuttered, events canceled, shipments of protective face masks called in, a public in panic – and all of it brought on by an unknown health risk.

Sound familiar?

As ash from the eruption of Mount St. Helens darkened the sky above Spokane 40 years ago and began to fall on the streets, businesses and homes below, nobody knew how dangerous it was.

Not even the people in government tasked with coordinating a response.

Roger Crum, who at the time was the deputy city manager for Spokane, recalled the collaborative – but at times chaotic – response of local governments and agencies to the eruption of Mount St. Helens in an interview with The Spokesman-Review last week.

For Crum, May 18, 1980, was just like any typical Sunday. His kids were out playing in the yard when a neighbor came over to share the news – Mount St. Helens had just burst 290 miles away. Within hours, ash would start to fall on Eastern Washington.

On Monday morning, the local government response began in full, but officials were still operating in the dark, both figuratively and literally. The first step was to call the health department and find out what they knew about ash, “which wasn’t much at the time,” Crum recalled.

“Nobody had an answer to that. I think the Health Department was trying to do research from Italian volcanoes and find out what their results had been,” Crum said.

As the ominous, dark cloud of ash encroached on Spokane on Sunday, Ron Edgar hurried to his post as a chemist with the Spokane County Air Pollution Control Authority, which is now the Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency.

It was unlike anything the agency, or Edgar, had seen before.

“It was so gray, it was a little like going into a black-and-white movie,” Edgar said. “There wasn’t much color out there for a while.”

The fears were numerous. If the ash was treated with water, would it release harmful gases? Could the fine particles cause silicosis, a lung disease most commonly found in miners and construction workers?

“Really, we just weren’t sure what to be worried about. We did know that we had to be worried about the fact that there was just an extraordinary amount of material,” Edgar said.

The most dire of predictions didn’t play out. The yellow powder lining the ash wasn’t sulfuric acid, for example, just pine pollen. Crops still grew, and thousands did not succumb to a lung disease.

But with the immediate health risks of an ash blanket unknown as it continued to circulate in the air, schools were ordered closed for the week. Businesses were told they could not reopen until they cleared their roofs and parking lots of the ash, Crum said.

Edgar and his co-workers tried to measure just how much particulate was floating through the air, but the fiberglass filters they used to collect a sample immediately plugged up.

Finally, they got a measurement of 33,000 micrograms per cubic meter of particulate in the air. Even a serious dust storm would max out at about 300 micrograms per cubic meter, Edgar said, and normal levels were often below 50. It would be almost a year before particulate levels would return to normal.

The ash amounted to less than an inch in Spokane, while areas to the west received several inches, but it still lingered for days. Despite efforts to haul the chalky stuff away, there’s no dumpster or garbage truck that holds an entire city’s worth of ash.

A helpful tip came in that wet sawdust could help capture the fine ash, clumping it and making it easier to clean. Local mills donated sawdust to the effort, Crum remembered. The Spokane City Council passed a law requiring that ash be cleared in 10 days.

“It was heavy, it was powdery like talcum powder, but it wasn’t a good thing to breathe,” Crum said. Initially, the city planned to load it and haul it away. Later, officials “determined it was better to sweep it into catch basins and we could get it out later.”

That cleanup process took weeks, Crum recalled, and relied on a fleet of trucks that could painstakingly remove the waste from the city’s sewer system.

The fine powder wreaked havoc on the engines of cars, trains and planes, and many were left abandoned on city streets. The city provided Crum, who still needed to get around, an old police car that was considered dispensable.

The Thursday following the eruption, President Jimmy Carter visited Washington to tour the damage, including a brief stop at the airport in Spokane. A staffer for then-mayor Ron Bair advised the mayor to dress for the occasion with an outfit that matched the scale of the emergency.

“There’s Ron Bair, in his brown safari suit out there meeting with President Carter when everyone else had a coat and tie,” Crum said.

In the meantime, the city requested assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which delivered more than 100,000 masks, according to Crum, that were distributed from fire stations.

Two days later, a $50,000 bill landed on the city manager’s desk. It was never paid.

Although there was no handbook for responding to a volcanic eruption, Crum said officials across Spokane County were prepared because they regularly met and planned for emergencies.

The public health emergency brought on by the novel coronavirus bears some resemblance caused by Mount St. Helens, but the timeline is anything but similar.

“We knew that within a couple weeks, most of the problem would be over with,” Crum said. “That’s the difference.”

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