Thursday, November 14, 2019

Beauty for Ashes

On that clear Sunday morning of May 18, 1980, my mother walked the two blocks from their house to the church they pastored in Kittitas, Washington. When she stepped out the door, she noticed a small cloud on the southwest horizon. By the time she arrived at the church, billows of dark ash clouds boiled overhead, blocking out the sun, turning the day to night in just a few minutes.

That was the day Mt. St. Helens, a volcano in the Cascade Mountains of Washington, blew its top. The eruption was witnessed by vulcanologist David Johnston, who was camped on a ridge 6 miles from the volcano, and Keith and Dorothy Stoffel, who were making an aerial survey of the volcano that morning. Miraculously, they lived to tell their stories.

At 8:32 a.m., a local magnitude 5.1 earthquake set off a landslide on the lip of the crater. Within seconds, the whole north face of the mountain began to move and collapsed, releasing super-heated gases and trapped magma in a massive cloud. Hot gases and rock debris were blown out of the mountain face at nearly supersonic speeds, wiping out everything within 8 miles almost instantly.

The shock wave rolled over the forest for another 19 miles, leveling century-old trees, leaving all the trunks neatly aligned to the north. Beyond this downed-tree zone, the forest remained standing but was seared lifeless. The area devastated by the direct force covered nearly 230 square miles.

Shortly after the lateral blast, a second vertical explosion occurred at the summit of the volcano, sending a mushroom cloud of ash and hot gases more than 12 miles into the atmosphere.

During the next 9 hours, about 540 million tons of ash from Mt. St. Helens fell like rain over an area of more than 22,000 square miles. The total volume of the ash before its compaction by rainfall was about 0.3 cubic mile, equivalent to an area the size of a football field piled about 150 miles high with fluffy ash. My sister lived in Yakima, about 85 miles northeast of the volcano. She measured 7 inches of ash on her porch. In the next valley north, ash accumulated to 4 inches on my parents' porch--like snow, but it didn't melt. When I visited my family 2 months later, it was just blowing around in the wind and making everything gritty, even my teeth!

Heat from the initial eruption melted and eroded the glacial ice and snow around the remaining part of the mountain. The water mixed with dirt and debris to create mud flows, which reached speeds of 90 mph and demolished everything in their path.

The 1980 Mt. St. Helens eruption was the most destructive in U.S. history. Fifty-seven people died, and thousands of animals were killed, according to the U. S. Geologic Survey. More than 200 homes were destroyed, and more than 185 miles of roads and 15 miles of railways were damaged. 

Ash clogged sewage systems, damaged cars and buildings, and temporarily shut down air traffic over the Northwest. The International Trade Commission estimated damages to timber, civil works, fisheries, and agriculture to be $1.1 billion. Hot ash caused forest fires, and snow melt from the top of the mountain caused floods. Volcanic ash spread across the Northwest. More than 900,000 tons of ash were cleaned up from areas around Washington.

Mt. St. Helens ash
Today, scientists keep a close watch on Mount St. Helens and other volcanoes in the Pacific Northwest. The volcano's location on the Cascadian Subduction Zone means another eruption is inevitable.

Yet, out of the ashes and destruction has come beauty. The ash has made the farmlands of Washington even more fertile. 

While Mt. St. Helens lost over 1,300 feet in height (previously, the mountain was 9,677 feet; it is now 8,365 feet) and scenic Spirit Lake was severely impacted, over time, the landscape is recovering. Different but still beautiful, it still attracts tourists.

Helenite also comes in shades of blue and red.
Unexpected and even more surprising, while cleaning up after the eruption, it was accidentally discovered that, when heated, the elements in the volcanic rock and ashes would fuse to form a rich, green gem similar to an emerald. The process was later perfected in strict lab conditions to create the magnificent deep green Helenite gemstone. Called Helenite or Mt. St. Helens Emerald, it has earned the title "America's Emerald." With its sparkle, color, and cut, it delivers the beauty of precious emeralds without the big price tag.

Isn't that just like our God? In Isaiah 61:3, He promised to comfort all who mourn:

To give them beauty for ashes, 
the oil of joy for mourning, 
the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; 
that they may be called trees of righteousness, 
the planting of the Lord, 
that He may be glorified.

As I look back over my life, I remember times when I felt my life was in ashes. But God has made something beautiful out of the devastation. Can you think of a time when God turned your ashes into something beautiful?

Note: I'm still struggling to get my blood pressure down to normal. Still getting many tests and trying new meds. Significant deterioration in my cervical and lumbar spine has been discovered, and physical therapy is recommended. That will be time consuming. I will still make my new book a priority. I'm making good progress. And I will try to write a blog post from time to time. Thank you for your continued prayers. 


  1. AnnaLee, I remember Mt. St. Helen's eruption very well. What a surprise to see ash billowing in clouds over Puget Sound! I won't read Isaiah 61:3 in the same way after reading your post. Praying for God's comfort and healing. I'm looking forward to your book too.

  2. Thanks for the detailed account.I heard the blast while in church in Mount Lake Terrace, North of Seattle. Was "on call" for UW Hospital. Initial call was for masks for Yakima Hospital.The ash drifted and landed on our cars in Seattle. I presented photos and narratives of the event at a number of local and national Risk Management conferences.

  3. Wow, LeAna! Glad you enjoyed my account.