Thursday, May 19, 2005

Are people really aware of the possible volcano eruptions in the USA?

Twenty-five years ago today at 8:32 a.m. PDT, the continental United States was shaken by the massive eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington. Within 15 minutes, an ash cloud rose 80,000 feet over the volcano. The blast knocked 3.7 billion cubic yards of earth, ash and rock off the mountain.

A landslide triggered by the blast buried the North Fork of the Toutle River to an average depth of 150 feet (in some places, it was 600 feet). It's fury blew down or burned 230 square miles of forest. Ash fell within a 22,000-square-mile distance.

The speeding cloud of death took 57 lives -- the most famous being the mountain's own curmudgeon named Harry Truman. Washington's State Department of Game estimated that 7,000 big game animals (bear, elk and deer) were killed as well as countless birds and small mammals. Lahars, rivers of volcanic debris, damaged 27 bridges, about 200 homes and destroyed 15 miles of railways and more than 185 miles of roads.

It happened very quickly. Those too young to recall Mt. St. Helen's eruption can identify with the swiftness of its horror after seeing videos of the tsunamis that hit Asia and Africa last December.
Americans tend to think of volcanos as a threat faced mainly by countries along the Pacific Rim. Yet the United States has 224 volcanoes (many are in Alaska).

The eruption 25 years ago taught us a lesson that emergency plans must be in place. Scientists and other experts believe that is the case, especially with Mt. Rainier because it is within striking distance of 3 million people in the metropolitan Seattle area.

After years of relative quiet and a rebirth of the land at the blast's ground zero, Mt. St. Helen's stirred back to life last September. Since then, it has puffed out a few ash clouds. Is this a volcanic burp or a warning of bigger things to come? Stay tuned.

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