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From the Newsroom: Marking an event amid an event

While we journalists have been mostly thinking about covering the novel coronavirus and all of its implications, we are also thinking about how to cover the 40th anniversary of the catastrophic eruption of Mount St. Helens.

The volcano, which is located in Skamania County, erupted on Sunday morning, May 18, 1980, on a clear day that in Eastern Washington quickly turned dark. I remember that day well. I was a student at Washington State University in Pullman, and I was procrastinating over an English paper when word got around campus that an ash cloud was coming, and that the observation deck atop the tallest building on campus was being opened so students could see it.

I put aside my portable typewriter and hurried to the observation deck. Instead of a single cloud, I remember seeing a straight dark line on the horizon. As it moved closer, it was easy to see where the sky turned from clear blue to jet black. About the time the line reached Dusty, the campus police closed the roof, and we were ordered to go home and stay there. Soon it got dark, the streetlights came on, and it began to “snow” flakes of ash that would never melt.

I still own the typewriter, but I don’t think I ever finished that English paper. After a week of shelter-in-place rules, administrators made the rest of the school year optional. Because my parents’ home was unscathed, I left town until the fall.

It is a trivial story considering the eruption killed 57 people and damaged more than 200 homes. It took months — or years — for areas a long way from the volcano to recover, and, of course, the blast zone itself is still recovering.

So how should we commemorate the 40th anniversary of such a monumental event, given that we are in the midst of another monumental event?

We don’t want to divert our resources from covering the coronavirus pandemic. Without advertising support, a special section is out of the question. Finally, we don’t have any newsroom employees left who were on staff in 1980 — the last one retired not too long ago.

And the final complication is a bit of an ironic twist — as in 1980, the timing is awful. The volcano erupted on a Sunday morning, but The Columbian didn’t have a paper until Monday afternoon. This year the anniversary falls on a Monday, when we won’t have a paper until Tuesday morning.

So I think we will plan our coverage to run on Sunday, May 17. We’ve asked Zane Vorenberg, a local freelance science writer, to give us an update on what the volcano is doing now, and how scientists are monitoring it. In addition, we may reprint some of our 1980 content, including the main story conveying the news of the eruption. I think it will be interesting to give readers a juxtaposition between the quiet volcano today and the breaking news of 40 years ago.

On Monday, May 18, Web Editor Amy Libby is planning a real treat: A near-takeover of our web page with stories we have published over the years about the 1980 eruption, including the most interesting survivor tales, some of which weren’t published until years afterward.

Amy is a Pacific Northwest native but notes that at age 42 she doesn’t have memories of that 1980 eruption. Like most living Americans, she is too young to remember it. If I were to venture a guess, I would say that fewer than a half-dozen of us in the newsroom are old enough to remember that day.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, how a crisis we endure becomes a shared memory and then a series of stories we share with those who are too young to remember. Just as I shared my Mount St. Helens story with you, someday we will share our coronavirus stories with a generation that has no recollection of this unusual and difficult time. As the stay-at-home order wears on, I am looking forward to this pandemic becoming a memory.


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