Science writer Steve Olson captures the background and aftermath of the cataclysmic 1980 blast of Mount St. Helens in his compelling new book, Eruption.
Why did you decide to write about Mount St. Helens, 35 years after the eruption?
I grew up in a small farming community in eastern Washington, about 100 miles downwind from Mount St. Helens. But I moved east for college in 1974 and spent 35 years there after meeting my wife in the back of an English class. When we moved to Seattle in 2009, I wanted to write about the most dramatic thing that has ever happened in my native state—and the eruption of Mount St. Helens was the obvious choice.
How did you find people to talk with about the eruption? Was it difficult?
Almost everyone in the Pacific Northwest has a Mount St. Helens story, and almost everyone was eager to share their story with me when I asked them about the volcano. Many people in southwestern Washington told me, “If it had blown the week before, I wouldn’t be here today”—that’s how many people ventured into what would become the blast zone before the eruption.
Harry Truman became somewhat of a folk hero for refusing to leave his home near Spirit Lake. Why do you think that was?
Harry Truman captured the public’s imagination by coming across as a proud loner defying government authorities. But the situation was more complicated up close. Many people who wanted access to their properties near the volcano said, “If Harry’s up there, why can’t I go?” which made life very difficult for the sheriffs who were trying to keep people away from the mountain. He was taking an immense risk, and his friends feared for his life. And in the end, he was the only one of the 57 people killed who was breaking the law when the volcano erupted.
Mount St. Helens is still an active volcano, as is Mount Rainier southeast of Olympia. Do you think officials learned from the 1980 blast? What would be different if there were an eruption today?
Volcanologists and public safety officials learned a lot from the eruption of Mount St. Helens. They are much better now at monitoring volcanoes and predicting eruptions—plus, new technologies have made monitoring much easier. They have developed systems to warn people in surrounding communities of eruptions or dangerous mudflows, which could happen at Mount Rainier even without an eruption. Public safety officials are much more cautious in keeping people away from dangerous volcanoes. But some volcanoes still erupt without warning, as when Mount Ontake in Japan killed 57 people in 2014. And if people don’t heed warnings, disasters can still occur.
When was the last time you visited Mount St. Helens? How would you describe it?
I drove to the mountain too many times to count while writing this book—and every time I go, I’m as astonished as the first time I visited. It’s an incredible place. The mountain is so huge, and the destruction so vast, that you still can’t believe anyone would be crazy enough to be anywhere near it in the weeks before the eruption. If you haven’t been there, you really should go. There’s no place like it in the world.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Eruption.