Forty years ago this month Mt. St. Helen's erupted in Washington, killing 57 people. In the grim pantheon of American disasters, 57 is not a shockingly high death total. The Galveston Hurricane killed 10,000; the San Francisco earthquake more than 3,000; Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, close to 3,000; the Johnstown Flood, about 2200.
Fifty-seven does not leap off the page, but when we know the whole story, we realize how much worse it could have been—certainly catastrophic enough to nestle comfortably in the list above.
Before May 18, 1980, most of us had never heard of Mt. St. Helen's, and so when it blew apart that Sunday morning, most of us were surprised. Scientists were not. They had catalogued the seismic activity for two months before the fateful morning, and had convinced state leaders to evacuate the area.
Then, like now, it was lives vs. livelihood. Mt. St. Helen's was a popular recreational area. People camped in the shadow of the volcano (inactive since the 1850s) and summer was coming—and it was the weekend. Stores and businesses relied on the influx of campers, hikers, and sightseers to maintain their cash flows, but suddenly here came these volcanologists and seismologists and geologists waving people away—a bunch of no-nothing, elitist eggheads robbing residents of their livelihood
And it wasn't just businesses—people lived in the area also, and logging concerns dotted the base of the mountain. The protests grew. Finally the governor relented and let loggers continue to work, then allowed a certain number of residents into the area each day so that homeowners could retrieve their valuables. The protesters became more vocal, buttressed by restrictive regulations—the state was denying them their freedom.
Then the mountain blew.
A thermal shock wave zipped across the land before a tsunami of debris, cooking at 660 degrees Fahrenheit, traveled 17 miles from the summit in just three minutes. It destroyed 230 square miles of forested land: trees within six miles were obliterated; those farther out were knocked down and seared. Thirteen miles from the volcano, plastic melted as the air burned.
New York Times, "The Mount St. Helens Eruption Was the Volcanic Warning We Needed" by Robin George Andrews, May 18, 2020
The destruction was unimaginable, but scientists—once people actually heeded their advice—had spared thousands of lives.
And now, forty years later, having forgotten every lesson we ever learned about science, we plan to ignore the advice of physicians and epidemiologists and "reopen" the country. Here in Connecticut, the biggest brouhaha seems to involve beauty parlors and barber shops.
I agree with the beauty parlor owners who want to reopen and leave the decision up to the customer, but I know from purchases I've made in the past that customers cannot always be trusted to exercise any wisdom. It's not as if the beauty parlor sat in a volcano-eruption zone and, if you went there, you might fry. This is different. With Covid-19 you may very well survive the trip, only to carry the disease home to other family members who won't.
It's a tough call when people who vote when they want to and obey traffic rules when it's convenient demand their Constitutional rights, but the Connecticut governor has done the right thing. Now you may complain that because I'm a man, I don't comprehend fully the need for someone with a scissors to pretty things up. But every time I look in the mirror at my hair—untouched by barber's hands since February—I see an image not unlike the first explosion on Mt. St. Helen's.
I can wait.