“The ash turned my red peonies to a dusty gray,” said a Latter-day Saint farmer’s wife in Zillah, Washington, over a hundred miles from the volcano.
“Our cow keeps eating all the leaves covered with ash. We tried to pen her in, but she jumped the fence so she could eat some more ash. She loves it, but we’re afraid she’ll get bloated,” said another.
“I just bought $30 worth of face masks, so we don’t breathe the stuff in. But worse than the ash is the tension from having to stay inside for two weeks, and who knows how much longer. Our kids are going crazy,” said one Latter-day Saint father who lives in the forested mountains next to the volcano.
It was a sunny Sunday morning, May 18, 1980, when Mt. St. Helens blew her top with a blast 500 times as powerful as the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The top 1,400 feet of the mountain were blown off, killing at least 22 people, wiping out homes, displacing families, creating steaming mudslides and floods that demolished bridges and logging camps, and blanketing much of the northwestern United States and parts eastward with a fine gritty, gray volcanic ash. Over a billion dollars in crops, timber, and property were lost; cities and schools closed down; food and water supplies were sometimes cut off; and people stayed in their homes.
The chalky ash covered trees, houses, fields, streets, everything, like tons of powdered sugar, but it was far from sweet. It clogged car engines, swirled up in white clouds like dense fog whenever cars drove through it (making driving extremely dangerous), choked out new crops, weighed heavily on rooftops and awnings and people’s minds. You could shovel it from your walk to the street, but it often blew back, and how did you get it out of the street, anyway. For most people it was a gritty nightmare that eventually city bulldozers and trucks would help handle.
For the young Latter-day Saints living in volcano territory, the disaster became a time of faith, service, and closeness to our Heavenly Father.
“I was in sacrament meeting when it happened,” said Joyce Allsop, 19, of the Yakima Fifth Ward, Yakima Washington Stake, about a hundred miles from Mt. St. Helens. “I looked out the window and everything was getting darker and darker. There were flashes of eerie, orange-red lightning through the ash particles, like nothing I’ve ever seen before, but no rain. The thunder came so close that we all ducked, and the building shook. We thought it would fall down on us. Then everything turned pitch black, at 10:00 in the morning, and stayed that way for 24 hours.
“Outside, ashes were falling like snow, only you could feel it, like sand pelting you. Then it started coming down like a heavy, gritty rain.”
The members of Joyce’s ward were told that the volcano had erupted and that the roads were extremely hazardous, with visibility down to zero. She and a friend decided to drive the 20 miles home, because they wanted to be with their families.
“As soon as we got into the car, we said a prayer to help us get home. We started out and could barely see anything, it was so dark. Cars where pulled off in ditches to the side of the road because people couldn’t see where the road was. Most people had no idea where they were. The only way we ever made it home was with the Lord’s help.
“When we got home, we got calls from all sorts of concerned people, some we hardly even knew, checking that we’d made it home safely,” she added.
The abrupt change from a peaceful, secure life to not knowing what would happen gave Joyce a lot to think about.
“I realized how blessed we were to get home safely. And I thought, if this is anything like the Second Coming, we have to be more prepared. I think I could also relate a little to how the Nephites must have felt when Christ was crucified, when it turned pitch black. Those words from the Book of Mormon suddenly took on new meaning.
“I also understood how powerful the forces of nature are and how quickly the world could be destroyed. And I realized, more fully why we need to have food storage and clothing, supplies, and water on hand. As soon as the general public in Yakima heard that the roads were closed because of the eruption, they all rushed to stock up on supplies. Now a lot of the single people from home are starting their own food storage programs,” said Joyce.
Sheryl Hague of Yakima was also at church when the volcano erupted. “I thought it was a blessing that we were all in church when it happened, in a safe place,” she said, “I go to a singles’ branch, but I knew my family was in church at their ward, and my dad, who’s a stake president, was in church somewhere. My bishop was making sure we had wet paper towels over our mouths so we didn’t breathe the dust in, and people were making sure that everyone who wanted a ride home had it and that we were all okay. Right away we organized a calling committee to make sure that everyone had food and any help they needed.”
Many of the Young Adults at Sheryl’s ward opted to stay at the institute building where church was being held, until things quieted down. Food was brought in to the group by the Relief Society and elders quorum presidents.
“The prophet tells us constantly to be prepared, but often we don’t really listen until something like this happens, which is too bad,” added Sheryl. “During the first day especially I thought a lot about the Second Coming and how if you’re not prepared you’re going to panic, like a lot of unprepared people here did. I found out how important food storage is, too. Some people here didn’t have enough food to last them for even a couple of days. On the radio people were advised to store water, which our family had already done long before. We stored quite a bit more, though, including a bathtub full.”
Immediately after the shock of the eruption, even with the uncertainty of not knowing what was going to happen, the young people of wards across Washington jumped wholeheartedly into helping other people. Calling committees checked to see that ward members were safe; teachers and priests quorums and the young women organized to help clean chapels and homes. Volcanic ash started flying as young volunteers got out their shovels and brooms and started the cleanup.
“The youth in my ward were helping even as families started leaving the chapel the morning of the eruption,” said Bishop Terry Brandon of the Yakima Fourth Ward, Yakima Washington Stake. “The teenagers comforted the children, talked with them, and in many cases scooped the young ones into their arms and delivered them safely to waiting cars and their parents. Breathing was uncomfortable, and the falling ash was irritating their eyes, but these youth didn’t care about that.
“Then early the next morning I began receiving phone calls from teens wanting to help anyone who needed it, so we organized a cleanup force. They spent eight, nine hours at a time in the grittiest, dirtiest mess you’ve ever seen helping other people, in addition to the efforts spent in cleaning up their own homes. They took a lot of initiative themselves. All of them helped clean up the stake center.
“It was such a spiritual uplift to work alongside such cheerful youth during a depressing, messy week of cleanup. We have a fine generation of young people here with goals and ideals that just won’t let them be defeated. When we didn’t know if we’d be able to hold church the next Sunday, I was determined we should, just so I could let them know how I felt towards them. I’ve never seen a finer group of young people,” said Bishop Brandon.
Hundreds of young Latter-day Saints across the disaster area swept ash, piled it high into giant gray hills, washed down roofs and streets, wiped it from their ears and hair and faces. And despite the seeming drudgery, some of them even had fun while they did it.
In the Moses Lake Washington Stake, over 150 miles east of the volcano, 33 youth helped clean the stake center, working until 1:00 in the morning so they could return the hoses they’d borrowed from the fire department in time. Scouts in Moses Lake helped clean the homes of ward members. The four teenagers of the Allen Brown family helped a blind ward member clean off his house and yard. The teens in the Don Larson family surprised a ward member who was out of town when the eruption occurred by having his house cleaned up when he got back to town. He then helped clean the chapel grounds and homes of other people. Craig Duvall, a recently returned missionary, cleaned county roads and driveways for a week. Carolyn Whiteman, a 14-year-old Lamanite, went day after day to haul ashes out of the yard of an elderly couple down her street.
“We got a wonderful response from all our people with the cleanup,” said President Lew Judd Allsop of the Yakima Washington Stake. “We had all sorts of help from the youth in our stake when we needed to clean the ash off the roof of the stake center. It was tedious work, sifting the ash out of the gravel on the roof so the roof wouldn’t cave in with the first rain. It was a dirty, gritty job, and I didn’t hear anyone complain about the dust in their eyes or it being terrible, dirty work. Working conditions couldn’t have been worse. Faces were black; there was grit in your ears, your hair, all over. And yet they got the job done, and in good spirits.”
When Carl Hendricks, who’d been home from the California Fresno Mission for two days, realized the problems people were having with cleanup, he called a local radio station and offered his services. Soon after, he got so many phone calls that it kept him busy cleaning up from early morning till late at night for over a week. He recruited his brother Gary, 16 (and newly elected student-body president of his high school), and another friend, Skip Behar, to help.
“It was dirty, but I really enjoyed it,” said Carl. “We were having a good time.”
The trio came to be known as “The Mormon Boys” in a trailer court of retired people where they spent much of the week cleaning up. And while they cleaned roofs, patios, and walkways, they talked to people about the Church.
“We were just out to help people,” said Gary Hendricks, “but we got a good chance to talk to people about the gospel. Our main goal, however, was to help get the ash off the roofs. People were worried about their roofs caving in from the weight if it rained.”
One of the elderly people they helped, Charles Royce, said those three changed his attitude about young people today. “I don’t know what we would have done without their help. These young people are tops and really know how to work. They don’t fool around any. They gave me a good impression of the younger generation, that they’re not all bums. You Mormons do a nice job.”
Some of the missionaries in places that had been hard hit decided to make the most of the situation and make good use of their time even though tracting was impossible. “The sister missionaries in our area stayed in our home at this time so they’d have food and because no one was supposed to be out except for cleanup,” said Bishop Bob Horner of the Naches Ward, Yakima Washington North Stake. “They got on the phone and called everyone in the phone book, saying that they were from the Mormon church, and asking if people were okay.
“It was a time when people were scared to death, and it was comforting for them to talk with someone. They were so impressed that the sisters would care enough to call that Sister Karen Miller and Sister Colleen Cummings got 45 contacts through those calls. The sisters felt that since they were on the Lord’s time, they couldn’t waste it. They are two of the greatest missionaries we’ve ever had,” said Bishop Horner.
Two elders in the Moses Lake area used an “ash approach” while spending the entire week helping nonmembers sweep ash from their homes. “We looked at the cleanup we did as missionary work,” said Elder Greg Bluth who with Elder Michael Ostler helped clean the ash from twelve homes. “People found out we were missionaries when they asked how much we charged, and we told them nothing. We talked about the gospel as much as possible.”
The Saints in the Longview-Kelso area of Washinton, some of them only a few short miles from the volcano, were probably hit hardest. Disposing of the ash was one of the least of their problems, even though they were inundated with it. Many of them faced the threat of flooding or mudslides ruining their homes, as well as the possibility of the natural dam of ash and logs that had built up, holding back Spirit Lake, wiping out the homes of the 50,000 people in the area.
“I went to bed really scared when only a foot more of water would have broken the dam,” said Devon Shaw, 12, deacons quorum president of the Kelso Ward. “We all did a lot of praying. When I woke up the next morning and learned that the water level was down, I knew that our Heavenly Father was watching over us.
“My dad was up on the mountain when the volcano blew up, and we were in Portland and were really worried about him. He called us the next afternoon to tell us he was okay. I was so thankful that my Heavenly Father protected by dad.”
Devon’s family was among the 25 families in the Kelso Ward that were evacuated to other ward members’ homes. Fortunately no Church members’ homes were destroyed.
“I was really scared when everything happened,” said Kathryn Pond, 13 of the Kelso Ward. “I knew that our house was high and dry, but I was afraid that we’d get wiped out too. The volcano is so big and can do so much damage, and we have no control over it. We really depended on our Heavenly Father to help us. No one in our ward was hurt. Some were in places where they could have been, but the Lord really helped us.”
The cleanup from Mt. St. Helens’ blowup will go on for years and years, some experts have predicted. And those people who’ve been involved in the cleaning up and in helping other people will undoubtedly remember it as long as they live. Most of the young Saints learned a lot, they indicated, spent a lot more time praying, and grew closer to the Lord.
“The Lord takes care of his people. I’ve learned that for sure,” said Sheryl Hague.
“I have the best youth in the Church,” said more than one bishop.
“I understand even more the importance of maintaining a close relationship with the Savior,” said Joyce Allsop.
“There’s been a spirit of cooperation and love among the Saints, even with three or four families under the same roof,” said Bishop Steve Pond of the Kelso Ward.
“It’s really touched people’s lives. We’ve even been able to reach out to inactive people in our ward who now understand even more how much the Church people care about them.
“Much good can come out of this. It’s a real opportunity to be about the Lord’s business.”
Which is just what hundreds of young Latter-day Saints have been doing.
“I’d like to go just one mile further, if we can,” said Bishop Steve Pond of the Kelso Ward, Longview Washington Stake. He was in the car with Mike and Beverly Glen of his ward, who were able to get through many of the roadblocks close to the volcano because they lived in that area. They had been winding up the narrow ash-covered mountain roads, helping the bishop check on members’ homes that might have been damaged by the mudslides and flooding.
“I’m afraid we’re not going to get through this roadblock,” said Mike Glen. “It’s manned, and they’re giving $500 fines to anyone who doesn’t belong up here.”
“Tell the national guardsmen that you’re a bishop and are checking on your people,” suggested Beverly Glen.
The car pulled up to the roadblock slowly, and the guardsman, who turned out to be LDS, poked his head in the car window.
“Hello, bishop,” he said. “How can we help you?”
“I’d like to check on some of our people who live up the road a ways,” said Bishop Pond.
“Very good. Some new tremors were felt in the last hour, though, so listen to your radio. If you smell lava, evacuate out of the area because as soon as we get the word to evacuate, we’re going in that direction,” said the guardsman. “Are we having Church this week?”
“Depends on your mountain,” said the bishop. “We’re going up the road now just a couple of miles, then we’ll be right out.”
Then they drove off, closer to the mountain and checking the members’ homes marked on the bishop’s map by pins. He used the map to keep track of his members during the disaster, and had spent most of his time outside of work the past two weeks since the eruption contacting members and making sure they were okay. Tonight he’d skipped dinner so he could get up to the homes while it was still light.
As soon as it was rumored that the volcano might blow, Bishop Pond had called a meeting with the ward welfare services committee to plan for the possible disaster. He asked the Relief Society to prepare a list of emergency supplies (much of which was to be taken from each family’s food storage) that could sustain each family for several days and was portable enough to be thrown into the car at a moment’s notice. The list was passed out to each family at sacrament meeting two weeks before the major eruption. Bishop Pond also assigned each ward family in a potential flooding area to another family on safe ground, so when the volcano did erupt (though no one knew if it would) everyone had a safe place to go.
To ensure good communications with the outside world and each other if the telephone system were hampered, a ham radio communications system was set up, too.
“Bishop Pond was really inspired in helping his ward members prepare for a possible disaster,” said Beverly Glen, a counselor in the Kelso Ward Relief Society. “It took a lot of work and foresight to help people get ready for what was to come.”
Some ward members put their food storage in their attics in case of flooding, so their food would stay dry. Many people drew upon their water supplies when their normal source of water turned to mud from the volcano’s mudslides. And some families drew upon their food storage when other families from the ward moved in with them.
“What we’ve learned from this situation is really just a verification that we need to do what the Lord tells us through his prophets, even without understanding the reasons,” said Bishop Pond.
“Overall, the disaster has brought some real blessings to our ward members. We’re much closer now as a ward, and we’ve been given the opportunity to really serve each other.”