The retrospective news of this week has several parallels to the current news of the day. The 40th anniversary of the Mount St. Helens eruption, which was Monday, provides some lessons for the coronavirus pandemic that has disrupted American life over the past two months.
Indeed, there are differences. The explosion that blew the top off the mountain, killed 57 people and covered much of the Northwest with ash attracted worldwide attention, but its impact was mostly regional. COVID-19, on the other hand, has disrupted the global economy and will irrevocably alter many facets of modern society.
But similarities can be found in the need for public officials to weigh the costs and benefits of preparing for a worst-case scenario. As Steve Olson, author of “Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens” wrote in an opinion piece for The Seattle Times: “After the eruption, government officials realized they had invested too little in studying our Cascades volcanoes, just as some officials now accept that a lack of research and a failure to blunt the course of the coronavirus have caused tens of thousands of lives to be lost.”
Over the past four decades, scientists have used the lessons of Mount St. Helens as an impetus for new methods of monitoring volcanoes and informing the public of possible dangers. While the mountain had rumbled in the weeks before the explosion, debates raged about what it meant and the threat that it posed. Loggers were allowed to continue working in the area; residents grew restless with evacuation orders.
As Lawrence Roberts, who covered the eruption, wrote this week for The New York Times: “The guidelines from federal and state representatives camped out in Vancouver, and from Washington’s governor, Dixy Lee Ray, often seemed in conflict.” Similar discord has been repeated as the federal government has failed to compose a coherent response to the coronavirus outbreak.
Protests of stay-at-home orders that have accompanied the pandemic also echo the events of 40 years ago. Roberts writes: “Scientists provided a range of educated guesses, and public officials split on how to respond. Business owners and residents chafed at the restrictions put in place, many flouted them, and a few even threatened armed rebellion.” The day before the eruption, Gov. Ray allowed residents of the evacuation zone to briefly return to their homes; many vowed to return the following day.
That was not to be. The mountain erupted at 8:32 a.m., flattening 230 square miles of forest with mud and super-heated gasses while unleashing a plume of ash that soared 15 miles into the air.
The human toll was tragic, with Columbian photographer Reid Blackburn among the fatalities. It could have been much worse if residents had remained in their homes or if the eruption had occurred during the workweek with hundreds of loggers in the area. As Roberts writes: “The scientists had done their best, but nature flexed a power far more deadly than even they had imagined.”
Similarities can be found in the coronavirus pandemic. Public health officials who have made a career of studying pandemics are doing their best to assess the situation and inform elected officials of the most reasonable responses. But decisions about issuing stay-at-home orders and when to lift them are simply well-educated guesses.
Yet lessons from Mount St. Helens remain valuable today and into the future. Other pandemics will appear, and the federal government should begin preparing for them now.