Jimmy Carter photo

Portland, Oregon Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session With Reporters Following an Inspection Tour of Areas Damaged by the Mount St. Helens Eruption.

May 22, 1980

THE PRESIDENT. First of all I'd like to make a statement that summarizes my own experience during the last few hours and describe the relationship among the Federal, State, and local government officials and agencies and the private people who will be facing the challenge of repairing the damage done by the recent volcanic explosion. And then following that I'll answer a couple questions about the Mount St. Helens explosion and eruption. I might have to call on some of my advisers to help me with the answers.

My overwhelming sense, as President, is to commend the people of the Northwest region of our country for the tremendous courage and presence of mind that has been shown here and the cooperation among the people in dealing with one of the most remarkable and formidable natural phenomena, I guess, of all recorded time. The calmness and the cooperation that's been shown and which must be shown in the future is one of the most important single factors in minimizing the damage that was potentially catastrophic.

This is a natural disaster of unprecedented dimensions, and of course we deeply regret the injury and the loss of life. But it could have been infinitely worse had there not been careful preparation and had there not been an instant and very effective response Sunday morning after the explosion and the eruption took place.

I've just come, along with Governor Ray, Governor Evans, the members of the congressional delegation, and other officials in my Cabinet as well, from traveling up the Columbia or down the Columbia River and observing the Cowlitz and the Toutle River valleys. We approached the Mount St. Helens area where Spirit Lake used to be, and we talked with people at the Cascade Middle School who had been evacuated from their homes. In the process, we have all been able to share experiences and to share plans for the future among the local, State, and Federal officials who will have to work together as a team in the future.

It's very important to realize that I have already responded with the declaration of a national disaster, at the request of Governor Ray, for the State of Washington, and of course, the other States that are impacted heavily, primarily to the west of here, but to some degree to the south of the explosion, will also be accommodated as soon as I receive those requests.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency will be primarily responsible for the coordination of the combined effort. John Macy, the Director of that agency, is here with me, and Bob Stevens will be my representative in this region in the weeks and the months ahead. Obviously there will be a wide range of assistance necessary, and it will be provided by whichever agency is primarily responsible for that service. Funding for all these services will also be provided, a major portion, of course, by individuals who own homes and businesses, by local officials, county and city level, by States involved, and of course by the Federal Government as well.

Our first priority, which has been handled so well, even before I arrived, is to deal with human needs. I met with a group of people who have been evacuated from their home, primarily in the valley region around the Toutle River. They seem to have been well taken care of. The school officials, the local police officials, the Red Cross, and others have done a very good job there, and they will be moving back into their homes as soon as transportation is open for them.

I'm very pleased that the early concerns about severe health consequences and environmental consequences and the threat of an immediate additional flood that could be even more devastating, those concerns have been alleviated to a substantial degree. The ash which is covering an enormous region of the Northwest is benign in nature. It is not toxic. It is not acid. It has about the same acidity as normal rainfall. In the long run, when it has been accommodated into the ground, I understand that it will not be harmful at all to the quality of the soil nor to the crops growing there. We will be closely monitoring its effect on presently growing crops, but the early expectations of serious damage I don't believe will be realized. The damage will be minimal.

Obviously the lack of transportation is causing a problem for farmers and particularly dairy farmers, because they cannot get their products to market. There will be, obviously, some damage economically, as well, to others who are involved in the transportation of goods and the production of food. Damage to fisheries in these particular river areas will be severe. We don't have any idea how long it'll take them to recover.

Many homes have been destroyed or presently isolated. Timber harvest has been interrupted. About 150 square miles of very rich timber region has been destroyed. Some of the trees that have been felled and not covered by ash can be harvested over a period of months, maybe 2 or 3 years at the most. Some of this is on private land, some, Federal forest land, some State land—I think about 40 percent private, 40 percent Federal, 20 percent State. The Secretary of Agriculture is here, responsible for the Federal efforts in forestry, and he will, of course, coordinate our efforts there.

The Corps of Engineers has already started opening up a channel in the Columbia River, which was almost completely closed to seagoing traffic, as you know, by the massive flood of ash, mud, down the Toutle River, Cowlitz, and into the Columbia. Eventually we'll have as many as eight major dredges there removing the material that has been deposited in the channel. That effort will be expedited as much as possible. The Secretary of the Army is here with me, responsible ultimately for the Corps of Engineers, and I think they deserve a great deal of credit in having moved so rapidly and, I think, so successfully.

There is a substantial economic impact on this area around the Columbia River, the port system, because of interrupted transportation of goods that needs to be marketed through seagoing traffic.

The Department of Interior is also represented here; the Forest and the National Park system, of course, are very closely related.

We don't know what will happen in the future. This is one of the most devastating but also one of the most interesting scientific events in recorded history. My own science adviser, Dr. Frank Press, is here. His specialty is in geology. He has made a deep study of earthquakes and volcanic actions, just coincidentally. He will be working with those who've been on the scene here for many years. Governor Ray, Governor Evans, and others will help to set up a special science advisory committee just to deal with the Mount St. Helens phenomenon and what might occur in the future. This will help to increase even further the degree of safety that has been achieved already and, of course, will provide scientific knowledge and experience that might lead to benefits in other areas of the world.

And finally, I'd like to say that I will be going from here to Spokane to see the kind of damage that has been created over large areas of the Northwest by the heavy fallout of ash. The removal of this ash, the adverse consequences of its being incorporated into internal combustion engines, its interruption of transportation by clogged waterways and also by highways is going to take a long time to correct.

There will be an enormous expense involved, and the correction or the repair of damage done by the Mount St. Helens eruption will undoubtedly take years or perhaps even decades before it can be completely corrected or repaired. Soil erosion will be continuous and severe in the river basin areas north and west of Mount St. Helens, and creating some kind of growth on the land to minimize soil erosion will be a challenge that has not yet been addressed.

What we will do in the next few days is to work very closely with Governor Ray, Governor Evans, and others to list all the challenges that face us together and to try to decide how to allot responsibility, how to make arrangements for meeting the heavy financial costs, and how to schedule these efforts with the maximum involvement of the general public, who must take care of their own local home needs on their own as much as possible.

I hope that we will be as fortunate in the future as we presently expect to be by having minimal agriculture, economic, environmental, health, and safety threats. There obviously was a great deal of concern immediately after the explosion and eruption. My belief is, after talking to scientific advisers and others, that there is no major immediate threat to the health or safety of those in this region.

One of the reasons for the loss of life that has occurred is that tourists and other interested people—curious people—refused to comply with the directives issued by the Governor, the local sheriff, the State patrol and others, and slipped around highway barricades and entered the dangerous area when it was well known to be very dangerous. There has been a substantial loss of life; about 70 people, I understand, are still missing. Some are likely never to be found. And I would like to urge everyone who lives in this region or who might visit this region to comply strictly with the directives of public officials and with the safety precautions that have been evolved for one's own benefit.

I think it might be good, now, for me to try to answer just a few questions.

REPORTER. Did you get to see the mountain at all, and, if so, could you describe it for us?

THE PRESIDENT. No, we didn't get all the way to the mountain because of the very low clouds and the bad weather. But we got very close to the mountain, were able to see the lower part of Spirit Lake, the extremely deep deposits of ash, the absolute and total devastation of a region that encompasses about 150 miles. It's the worst thing I have ever seen. It had been described to me earlier, but it was much worse than the description had impressed me.

I don't know how long it'll take for that region to be open even for normal movement of traffic. Enormous blocks of ice apparently are still covered by literally hundreds of feet of fluffy, face-powder-type ash, and as that ice is melted under the hot conditions that exist, enormous cave-ins are taking place. Steam is bubbling up. There are a few fires about. Someone said it was like a Moonscape but it's much worse than anything I've ever seen in pictures of the Moon's surface.

Fortunately, the number of people in that region were minimal, but it is literally indescribable in its devastation.

Q. Do your advisers tell you that there are going to be any more eruptions perhaps of the other volcanos in this vicinity?

THE PRESIDENT. There are people here who are experts on that. I've listened to them very carefully. It is very likely that there will be additional deposits, at least, of magma coming up out of the volcano now. Eruptions of some degree are likely. There was, I think, an earthquake yesterday—a tremor of, I think, scale 4 on the Richter Scale. And obviously it's unpredictable, but I don't believe there will be any future explosion as there was now, because the entire top of the mountain, about 1,200 feet of it—a cubic mile of earth has been blown away, and I don't think there will be an enormous buildup of pressure there. But if people will abide by the safety precautions issued by the Governor and others, in my judgment there will not be any danger to the health of people.

Q. Give us your impression, sir, of the search and rescue effort? The reason I ask that is that some of the families of the missing are complaining that the efforts are so disorganized that yesterday, they organized their own private search parties to go in and look for the missing. Could you comment on that, sir?

THE PRESIDENT. I think Governor Ray would be a better qualified person to comment than would I.

We will make available additional assistance through the Governor for the National Guard and whatever assistance is necessary from the Forest Service, the Parks Service, from the Corps of Engineers in helping to open up transportation routes, and, obviously, from the military forces for surveillance and location of people, the movement of bodies when they are discovered—all this will be very carefully coordinated.

It's dangerous now to go up into that region because of very low visibility, large clouds of steam coming out of the melting ice that's covered up by this hot deposits of mud, and if you see this site, you will know that the people that were anywhere in that close region just could not possibly have survived. But around the periphery of the destroyed area, search and rescue operations can be conducted without danger to the people making the search effort.

My only response is I don't believe that anything additionally can be done, and my hope is that private search efforts will be minimal or, if they are made, that they will only be conducted after clearance from those who are in charge of the official search and rescue effort.

Q. I'd like to get your personal thoughts—as you flew over the devastation and observed all this from the volcano, what were your personal thoughts?

THE PRESIDENT. Well, my personal thoughts—I've tried to describe them. Anyone who flew over—and there were a good many news people who did—would know that there is no way to prepare oneself for the sight that we beheld this morning.

I don't know that there's—in recorded history in our Nation, that there's ever been a more formidable explosion. What happened apparently was a natural explosion equivalent maybe to 10 megatons of nuclear bombs or 10 million tons of TNT that swept across, first with a flash of light and heat—800 to 1,000 degrees out 12, 15 miles away—that instantly burned everything that was in direct visual sight of the explosion itself. This was later followed, in 2 or 3 minutes, by the pressure wave, that travels at the speed of sound. And then that was later followed by this enormous gush of liquid rock, mixed with air and to some degree with ice, that comprised I cubic mile of material. So, the combination of these three things is just almost indescribable.

I don't want to add a frivolous or a lighthearted note to a serious discussion, but I would guess that in the future, a year from now, or whatever, when access can be provided under the careful control of the State and Federal officials, that this will be a sight that people will come from all over the world to observe. The impressiveness of the force of nature is overwhelming, and when safe places are fixed for tourists and others, and scientists, to come in and observe it, I would say that it would be, if you'll excuse the expression, a tourist attraction that would equal the Grand Canyon or something. It's an unbelievable sight.

But obviously this will come much later, when the damage to people and their property can be restored, and when careful plans can be made to provide access to it by people who want to come and observe it. No one should go in there now unless they're on official business.

Q. Mr. President, have you gotten any preliminary estimates—and I know it's very early—but any preliminary estimates at all on how much this is actually going to cost the Federal Government?

THE PRESIDENT. No, I don't know yet. We'll be preparing that. And of course, it will be of such a magnitude that a special request will have to be made. I don't think we'll be able to accommodate it out of normal budgeted funds.

Q. I'm Pearl Naley from Skamania County, where this mountain is, and I was wondering, did you have a chance, first of all, to see our county seat? Were you able to land while you were flying over? Did you stop?

THE PRESIDENT. No. We landed at Kelso so that I could visit some of the people who were evacuated and to see how they were being taken care of.

We'll be leaving here and going to Spokane. We'll fly in Air Force One as close to the mountain as possible, perhaps just to observe it, as a matter of interest. And we'll be going to Spokane to see the problems of the removal of the powdered ash—that, I understand, varies in depth from half an inch to 5 or 6 inches in the western part of Washington, and also in the northern part of Idaho and other States as well.

But we did not have a chance to land in that area. When the helicopter pilot decided to turn around I did not argue with him. [Laughter]

Q. We'll invite you back to Skamania County.


Q. I was very interested in the recreation and tourism, because that would provide extra jobs for the people of the Columbia River gorge, and I'm interested in the public relations of the entire Columbia River gorge. The funding part of the recreation and tourism hasn't really taken off yet. Could you give us any indication of when that might be possible in this devastated area?

THE PRESIDENT. No, I hesitate to mention that, because it's so far in the future. I really mentioned that only to show the enormity of the catastrophe or the explosion and how unique it is, at least in my knowledge, of the entire world. But that is far in the future, and I don't think it's any time

Q. In my lifetime?

THE PRESIDENT. Oh, I think so, yes. I hope you live much longer than that.

Q. Mr. President, what do you think the value has been of this trip?

THE PRESIDENT. Well, it's let me and the Secretary of Interior and Agriculture, the Secretary of the Army, the Director of our Federal emergency operation, my major science adviser, we have the Director of the National Institute of Health, and those who work with them, along with the congressional delegation from these Northwestern States, all see at first hand what the devastation is, which I could never have dreamed before I came here; and also see the need for close cooperation in the future, both for correcting the damage as rapidly as possible, as it relates to human beings, and then to minimize economic losses, and then to devise a way, slowly, to restore the area, not to its original condition, because that would be impossible, but to habitable and safe conditions. Also, I think it's let us lay the groundwork for future assessments of how to pay for these enormous additional costs. This is the essence of the reason for our trip.

And I think it's important, too, to the news media, to let other people in this Nation, who are taxpayers and who will have to share in the costs for the repair of damage, to know how serious this event was,

Those are some of the immediate benefits, I would say.

Q. Mr. President, in the area around St. Helens, there's a mixed ownership of land, as you know. Is any consideration being given to a blocking up of the ownership—so that one agency will be in charge of that entire area?

THE PRESIDENT. Yes. As you know, originally when this area of our Nation was settled, on alternate sections of land the railroads had title to it: As a matter of fact, the very peak of Mount St. Helens is owned privately now, by the railroad. There will be

Q. It's been spread all over the countryside.

THE PRESIDENT. That's right. Part of that land has been spread all over the countryside. [Laughter] But the location is still there a little bit deeper.

I talked to the park superintendent, and over a period of years in the past, and now maybe at an accelerated degree in the future, there will be an exchange of federally owned land for that particular land around Mount St. Helens to bring it under Federal control, not only for its protection from change, so that it can be observed in its natural state as much as possible, but also to ensure safety and proper access to it for scientists and others.

My guess is that over a period of time the Mount St. Helens explosion will be one of intense interest to geologists and volcanologists and others from all over the world, and it'll be a scientific curiosity in the finest sense of that word. So, I would guess to you that there will be an accelerated effort by the Federal Government, and Cecil Andrus is here, the Secretary of Interior.

Q. Would that include the removal of any of the timber that's down now, rather than leaving it in the state in which it now exists?

THE PRESIDENT. I think there will be an effort to remove that timber instead of leaving it, because if you left it, it would only be there for 3 or 4 or 5 years before it decayed. And my hope is that we can have an accelerated harvesting of that timber, maybe providing additional jobs in that transition phase.

As I said earlier, I think about 40 percent of' the downed timber is privately owned and about 40 by the Federal Government and 20 by the State, roughly. There's about 150 square miles north of Mount St. Helens that's devastated.

There's no living timber in it. Maybe one more question.

Q. Mr. President, there hasn't been a major volcanic eruption in this country in well over 50 years. Is the Federal Government adequately prepared to deal with a disaster of this magnitude, or can residents of this region expect some delays and government snafus?

THE PRESIDENT. I can't promise you that I as President have the ability to prevent a volcanic eruption. [Laughter] And my own experience is that government snafus are quite often not delayed. [Laughter]

Thank you very much.

Note: The President spoke at 11:03 a.m. in Salon F at the Marriott Hotel.

Jimmy Carter, Portland, Oregon Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session With Reporters Following an Inspection Tour of Areas Damaged by the Mount St. Helens Eruption. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/252206

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