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News / Clark County News

From the Newsroom: How we’d cover the Mount St. Helens eruption today

By Craig Brown, Columbian Editor
Published: May 18, 2024, 6:09am
2 Photos
The May 18, 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens generated worldwide media coverage. But how would it be covered in the internet era?
The May 18, 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens generated worldwide media coverage. But how would it be covered in the internet era? (The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

Today marks the 44th anniversary of the cataclysmic eruption of Mount St. Helens.

If you weren’t around in 1980, here is what happened: For generations, the picturesque, 9,677-foot peak was a recreational paradise for residents of Southwest Washington and Portland. But on March 16, 1980, a small series of earthquakes shook the mountain. Geologists sounded the alert. The Columbian and other Northwest media began following the story. Only 11 days later, steam explosions opened a small crater, marking the volcano’s first eruption in more than a century. The volcano awoke in fits and starts.

A major eruption followed on Sunday, May 18. At 8:32 a.m., a magnitude 5.1 earthquake sloughed away the volcano’s top 1,300 feet. According to the University of Washington, the debris avalanche accelerated to 300 mph as explosions ripped open the giant bulge that had formed on the mountain’s north side. The lateral blast leveled a large forest and killed 57 people.

The eruption was a major news story for many days. The ash cloud spread around the world and the devastation — Eastern Washington was particularly hard hit — was widespread. Luckily, Portland and Vancouver were spared from damage when the wind blew the ash cloud east.

In those days, television was the best way to distribute live news. But The Columbian threw its staff into the story, even as they mourned the loss of their colleague, photojournalist Reid Blackburn. Blackburn was killed by the blast while on an authorized assignment inside the exclusion zone.

Mount St. Helens

The May 18, 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens generated worldwide media coverage. But how would it be covered in the internet era?From the Newsroom: How we’d cover the Mount St. Helens eruption today
Today marks the 44th anniversary of the cataclysmic eruption of Mount St. Helens.
In this May 19, 1980 file photo, Mount St. Helens erupts in Washington, sending a plume of ash many miles skyward.Predicting volcanic eruptions 43 years after the Mount St. Helens blast
Forty-three years ago today, Mount St. Helens erupted, triggering a magnitude 5 earthquake and spewing ash, mud and debris across southwest Washington.
The eruption of May 18, 1980 sent volcanic ash, steam, water and debris to a height of 60,000 feet.St. Helens spews death, destruction
Mount St. Helens, the once-serene, cone-shaped peak that dominated the skyline northeast of Clark County and stood guard over the beautiful Spirit Lake recreation area,…

The Daily News in Longview also covered the story relentlessly, including flood damage caused by instant snowmelt that washed ash and debris down the rivers into Cowlitz County. It won the Pulitzer Prize for its coverage.

I was in college in 1980, so I witnessed the catastrophe from Eastern Washington but didn’t participate in the news coverage. But the anniversary got me thinking: How would we cover a major eruption of Mount St. Helens today?

As in 1980, our coverage would start the moment the mountain started to stir. We’d do many of the things reporters did that spring, such as talk to experts and people who were or could be affected. We’d look at potential environmental hazards, and ask if and how a major eruption would contribute to global warming. And, of course, we’d report about what happened in 1980.

We’d write about what to do in case an eruption spread ash, superheated gas or other hazards into Clark County, and would make that information freely available to the public online. We’d link the stories to various places readers could get official information and assistance. We’d use social media to spread the word.

One thing we would not do is to send any journalists toward the danger. The destructive force of the May 18 eruption was later estimated at 10-50 megatons of TNT, which is 25,000 times more forceful than the atomic bomb used in Nagasaki, Japan in 1945. It was much more powerful than anyone could have predicted.

Should a major eruption occur, we’d press all of our staff into service. We’d direct our coverage online first, starting with our social media channels. Top priority would go to official messages urging the public to take action, followed by “current status” stories, followed by reaction stories. We’d link back to the “what to do” stories, which should have been published well in advance. We’d solicit contributed photos and video to supplement our own reporting. Lowest priority would go to stories for the printed newspaper, which would be written more with a retrospective “what happened, what might be next” point of view.

We know volcanoes erupt on a cycle. Who will be here to cover the next one, and what technology will they use?

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