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Lessons from fury

The other day I mentioned in passing that “official” maps of the danger zones around Mt. St. Helens were so misleading that they probably got people killed.

Indeed, I’ve learned since that they did. In fact, almost everybody killed in the 1980 eruption was in an area that government agencies had officially designated as “safe” — despite evidence to the contrary.

My comment came in a post about tsunami preparedness and “official” maps that I’ve chosen not to trust. First off, I want to say that I think “official” map makers usually do their honest best. But at best there’s a lot of guesswork involved. And before the map makers ever get their hands on the information, there can be a hell of a lot of politics in the decision-making about what’s safe and unsafe.

St. Helens, though it blew 31 years ago, offers an object lesson.

I went looking for the map I remembered. It showed a “red zone” immediately around the mountain — evacuation of residents, no admittance except by special permit) and a “blue zone” that stretched farther out (no admittance for tourists, hunters, etc. but residents could remain). The boundaries were moved several times, but they were fixed on April 25, more than three weeks before the fatal blast, and were made official by Governor Dixy Lee Ray on April 30.

I had seen that map only once before — years ago — in a Time-Life book. Expecting to find 100 copies of it online, I was surprised to find not one after half an hour’s search. I finally found it in another book. I’ve scanned and reproduced it below.

The oddness of the boundaries would immediately have struck anybody watching the pre-eruption developments on St. Helens with a critical eye. The “red zone” is strangely attenuated, hugging the mountain’s base on the northwest side. The “blue zone” is even stranger. It’s absolutely bassackwards. It stretches hugely toward the south and east and literally doesn’t exist on the northwest.

Yet where was the 400-foot bulge developing on St. Helens? The north side. And where did the famous 1978 report that first called attention to St. Helens say the worst damage from past eruptions had been? To the northwest.

And sure enough, the mountain, when it blew, aimed its worst straight into the zone “officially” defined as safe. The area of those oddly gerrymandered boundaries.

Mt. St. Helens map showing pre-eruption danger zones and actual effected areas

(Click to enlarge. Click again if you get only a thumbnail.)

The book where I re-found the map is an excellent, sometimes heartbreaking, 2005 retrospective on Mt. St. Helens by Frank Parchman. It’s called Echoes of Fury, and it traces the activities of survivors, scientists, a journalist, and a St. Helens trespasser from the days before the eruption through years afterward.

It also discloses why the map went straight from “danger!” to “safety” so abruptly on the most dangerous side.

The land there belonged to Weyerhaeuser, which lobbied hard against having its property declared off-limits. For reasons that may be in the eye of the beholder — politics, property rights, refusal to understand the danger, or sheer carelessness — government agencies obliged.

The “red zone” and “blue zone” boundaries were set by Washington state Department of Emergency Services bureaucrats and made official by Governor Ray after a series of U.S. Forest Service meetings. Both government and corporate interests participated in the discussions. We know that the north and northwest boundaries followed Weyerhaeuser property lines. We know that, in setting the boundaries, state officials ignored a threat assessment made by one of the authors of the 1978 report. But nobody will ever know exactly how the decision was made — because every record of those meetings disappeared within two days after the eruption. The Forest Service official in charge even denied records had ever been kept.

Nearly everybody who died in the St. Helens blast was on that “safe” Weyerhaeuser land.

I hesitate to fault Weyerhaeuser (though Parchman does, and vigorously) because I know the company and think pretty highly of it. In early 1980, nobody really knew how bad the danger was (a lateral blast, which ended up killing most victims, was possible and explicitly mentioned in the threat assessment, but it wasn’t predictable). And what company would want to lose millions of dollars on what might turn out to be a mere scare? And too, neither the state nor federal governments had any defined authority to shut off Weyerhaeuser lands.* Yes, in retrospect, Weyerhaeuser itself should have closed its roads to the public for the duration and posted about the dangers. The company should have been more upfront with its loggers, should have offered them the option to stay out of the area or receive hazardous-duty pay for working within it.

Still. Whether the land was open or closed, and no matter who owned it, government agencies claimed the responsibility, and had the ability, to warn that the greatest danger lay to the north and northwest. Instead, the state of Washington, with the compliance of several federal agencies, deliberately led the public to believe that area was “safe.” They left the roads open, posted no warnings, and … well, I’ll turn to Parchman for the insults that were added to the injuries.

Parchman tells a lot of sad, terrifying, and inspiring stories (and even some funny ones) in his book. But a few give a special glimpse into the cynical contempt of governments toward mere citizens:

  • Within two days of the eruption, both Washington governor Dixy Lee Ray and President Jimmy Carter had blamed the deaths on the victims: Both politicians said that’s what people could expect if they failed to heed warnings and were stupid enough to go into the danger zone. (Remember, virtually none of the victims were in the “official” danger zone. Of the three who died in the “red zone,” two were geologists, authorized to be there, and one, Harry Truman, was ironically not criticized for being foolish, but elevated to folk hero status and even got a song written about him.)
  • Long after the eruption, major publications continued to publish erroneous information, blaming the victims for being where they were. Books were published and are still on library shelves claiming that most of the dead not only disregarded vigorous government warnings but sneaked around barricades to put themselves and their children in danger. Clear into the 21st century families of the victims continued to have to fight for their loved ones’ reputations.
  • And why the persistent belief that the victims caused their own deaths? Because, both before and after the eruption, multiple government agencies repeatedly told the media that the red and blue danger zones completely encircled the mountain on all sides. “Twenty-mile red zone” encircling the mountain was the standard phrase. It was a lie. A Big Lie that officials went on telling for years.
  • Turns out the map I’ve remembered that showed the actual red and blue zones wasn’t published until after the fact. Those who could have analyzed the real boundaries (rather than the government’s deception) with skeptical or expert eyes — people who could have taken one look and sounded the warning — never got a chance to. Naturally millions went on assuming that the government had drawn a vast circle around the mountain, said, “Stay out!” and only fools rushed in.
  • The saddest fools, unfortunately, were those who trusted the government. Parchman relates one account of a family of four — parents and young children — merrily making their way on a weekend trip to St. Helens. Along the way, they chatted about how they really hoped to see the volcano erupt. When the children asked if it might be dangerous, the parents said oh no, they were only staying in the safe zone, not to worry. We know about this conversation because it was recorded on a cassette tape found in the car with their four dead bodies.
  • A filmmaking crew went into the blast zone a few days after the eruption. They got lost in the wasteland of ash. A sheriff’s deputy in a department helicopter spotted them. The chopper descended. The deputy stepped out. He gave them a citation for being in the “red zone.” Then he refused to give any help to find their way — and flew off. The filmmakers thought they were going to die. Fortunately, they were rescued two days later. And no, they were not in the “red zone” at all.

There were, of course, heroic efforts by both government and private rescuers. Helicopter pilots risked their lives. Sheriff’s deputies worked exhausting hours. Log truck drivers led lost motorists out of danger. Before and after the eruption, government scientists risked their lives (and some died) to study the volcano. But government-qua-government — government in its “official” bureaucratic and law-enforcement capacity — was a bitch. A heartless bitch with an utterly cynical attitude toward ordinary people — willing to let them die while washing its own filthy hands of any guilt. There’s no reason to expect anything better in a future disaster.

One more of the sad stories from Parchman’s book has nothing to do with government but has to do with the way preparedness plans can go fatally awry. Long after the eruption, a woman who had gone to the mountain with friends looking for the site of her brother’s death stumbled upon an extensive field of wrecked vehicles and machinery that had nothing to do with him — a truck ripped into four pieces, logging equipment mangled and tossed downhill. She connected with a logging contractor who had been searching for two of his workers. The equipment was his, the quartered truck theirs. When they all went back to the site together he ruefully told the woman they’d been aware of the danger. But they weren’t too worried because they had a plan. He pointed to one of the mangled machines and told her that if the mountain erupted, they’d planned to get “under there.”

Good book. I highly recommend it.


* “Private” forest roads are partly financed by the federal government, which requires timber companies to keep them open to the public (with certain restrictions) but also absolves the companies from legal liability for recreational use. In a freer country, all those “interests” who contributed to setting the zone boundaries might have left Weyerhaeuser lands open, but held the company responsible if it allowed the public into an area known to be dangerous; that option wasn’t available. But in any case nothing — but politics or neglect — could ever have stopped the government agencies in charge from designating those lands as a danger zone and publishing advisories.


  1. Scott
    Scott March 29, 2011 2:08 pm

    Sounds sort of like those old civil defense “survival” manuals-that were based on low kiloton ground blasts over flat areas, not high kiloton/megaton airbursts. The short-short version with natural disasters is that there are just so many variables-you can prepare(a smart thing to do),but calling nearby areas “safe” is risky when dealing with geological disasters(well, any disaster, I suppose). Get as far away as you can is the safest bet.

  2. Claire
    Claire March 29, 2011 2:44 pm


    In the case of St. Helens it seems worse to me because the zones were clearly set using political priorities rather than the findings of vulcanologists. But indeed, people who thought they were “safe” just because the government didn’t stop them from going into the area were awfully naive.

  3. bumperwack
    bumperwack March 29, 2011 2:51 pm

    nice write up claire

  4. Claire
    Claire March 29, 2011 3:17 pm

    Thanks, bumperwack. I’m a little surprised it hasn’t gotten more comment. Wondering if it’s either too long-winded (I’ve been known to be guilty of that before) or if nobody cares about what happened 31 years ago. Or maybe it just takes time …

  5. Lisa
    Lisa March 29, 2011 3:52 pm

    I care, Claire. I found this post riveting.

    I was 12 when Mt St Helens blew. I could actually hear it, even though I was so far north of the area. Those deaths totally made me so sad then. Now they break my heart, and looking at the map, with the debris zone, sear zone, pyroclastic flow and blast zone encompassing so little of the blue zone– I am at a loss for words. Except a few very choice ones I won’t write here.

    Thank you for sharing. I’m going to look for the book at the library.

  6. Claire
    Claire March 29, 2011 4:47 pm

    Thank you, Lisa. I know what a good heart you have. If you find the book at the library, you’ll also discover an interesting infobit about hearing the blast — those who did and those who didn’t. It’s pretty fascinating. And strange.

    I was far from the mountain when it blew. All I got was a few pretty sunsets. But I’ve been to to St. Helens several times, once when the roads were still just being rebuilt after the blast and merely the drive up there at that time was pretty damn scary. I can’t even begin to express my feelings about being on or near the mountain. It’s like being in a cathedral — only a cathedral whose god is terrifying.

  7. Pat
    Pat March 29, 2011 5:07 pm

    I don’t lnow what to say about this. I was on the East Coast and worried about some friends I had in central Washington. Some of this story I have heard since, but missed so much more of it. I’ll be looking for the book also.

  8. ff42
    ff42 March 29, 2011 6:15 pm

    Weyerhaeuser? Is that the company that lobbied long and hard for criminalizing marijuana because it feared paper making competition from this plant – or is this just another Internet rumor?

  9. bumperwack
    bumperwack March 29, 2011 7:04 pm

    scary, maybe?

  10. Lisa
    Lisa March 30, 2011 8:49 am

    ff42— I can’t comment on your question regarding Weyerhaeuser specifically, but most paper companies (and those who supply them with raw material) have lobbied hard to keep hemp paper out of the market. In our opinion ( we own a business that uses paper all day long), hemp paper is not only an incredibly renewable and sustainable product, it’s superior in quality. We wish we could purchase it for regular use at competitive market pricing.

  11. Lisa
    Lisa March 30, 2011 8:52 am

    I can’t even begin to express my feelings about being on or near the mountain. It’s like being in a cathedral — only a cathedral whose god is terrifying. Claire, I have some understanding of what you mean.

    I have hiked through Ape Caves twice– lava tubes near Mt St Helens. Both times I was so filled with foreboding, my legs were like rubber the whole way through. Jeff had to hold my hand most of the way the first time, the dread was so strong.

  12. Claire
    Claire March 30, 2011 12:41 pm

    Lisa — Amen. I’ve thought about hiking Ape Caves, but you’re a braver woman than I. My favorite St. Helens spot is Windy Ridge, where you can gaze right into the crater. (Or at least you could last time I was there; I don’t know how much the trees may have grown back now. It was nothing but gray pumice and ash the two times I was up there.) To me, there’s a sacredness to that place. It’s a spot deserving of silence. Reverence. Contemplation. Bugs the hell out of me to be up there among screaming kids and their loud, gawking parents. I like to go off on a trail, away from that, and just BE there, feeling small in the face of the power.

  13. clark
    clark April 14, 2011 7:57 pm

    The following quote I found on a blog discussing the tsunami in Japan, after reading your post it seems the sentiment surrounding the quote is not really an American virtue, at least not one for officials, and probably most Americans in general, I don’t know:

    “You don’t run out on people in their time of need.”

  14. Titus
    Titus April 15, 2011 1:43 am

    Claire, I was 14 when it blew. My father was a contract timber faller for Weyerhaeuser at the time. He refused to enter into either zone. My famliy grew up hunting around that mountain and fishing at Spirit Lake. The day it blew we were at Silver Lake and watched the lake boil as the ash cloud created its own weather. In order to get home we had to run cross the closed Mickey Mouse bridge over the Toutle River, against the threats of police, just before my Aunt’s house floated around the corner and broke up on the bridge. I remember Harry Truman as a very mean spirited man with dozens of cats running all over the place.

    If you want to really see the mountain now, go up trail 217, past the Ape Caves, to the Plains of Abraham. It is still like being on the moon, though plants and trees are coming back with a vengeance.

    I will not forget the trucks, buses, elk, deer, salmon, old-growth timber, buildings, etc that formed the wall of the water barreling down the churning Toutle river as it mowed down everything in its path.

  15. Claire
    Claire April 15, 2011 5:25 am

    OMG, Titus, that’s one hell of a story — and one hell of a memory. I imagine you still see that horrible, strange wall looming over you in your dreams.

  16. Jonas Parker
    Jonas Parker April 15, 2011 9:16 am


    Is it time yet? 😉


  17. Titus
    Titus April 15, 2011 7:02 pm

    Well, the “wall” of water was impressive. But we never got close enough for it to loom over us. I’d never before seen a river ignore its course and just go straight-ish. Over everything.

    The ash cloud certainly loom over us. That was something.

    off topic

    Silver is at $43.05/oz!!!

  18. Iman Azol
    Iman Azol April 15, 2011 7:04 pm

    At the same time, I would never assume there is a “Safe” zone on an erupting or soon to be volcano. Experts do make mistakes, and information does get confused in translation even at the best of times.

    The safest place to watch the eruption from was TV.

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