Saturday, May 18, 2013

I Am A Survivor

Today is the 33rd anniversary of when Mt. Saint Helen's erupted in Washington state and began spewing ash.  I don't think I would have thought of that if a friend who grew up in the area hadn't posted it on Facebook... but reading people's memory of the event made me think about that and other natural disasters that had some part in shaping my life.

Is that a weird way to look at life?  Maybe.

Or maybe not so much.

You see, disasters happen.  Whether man has a hand in it or Mother Nature blows her cork and reigns down devastation, it happens.  And when we experience it, and survive it, we are changed by the memory.  It's a powerful thing to say I survived such and such event, so certainly I can survive whatever is facing me today with an attitude of 'Really?  Is that all you've got?"

Here's a pictorial look at the disasters I've survived:

Teton Dam Breach
June 5, 1976
Faulty pipes in the structure, I believe, were the root cause of internal erosion and ultimate failure of this earth-filled dam in Southeast Idaho.  The  breach happened on June 5, 1976 as captured in this photo from (There's a very complete slide show and study information about it there for anyone interested in the engineering and mechanics.)  Miraculously just 11 people died as a result.  Many more lost homes, cars, farm equipment and animals as water swept through the communities lining the banks of the Snake River downstream.

I remember hearing the initial reports that Saturday morning as regular tv programming was interrupted by the Emergency Broadcast System advising evacuation and providing information about what was happening.  It's the first time I remember EBS being for something real and not "just a test" and that made me feel like my whole world was dangerous place where all hell was breaking loose.  In the following days that feeling was amplified as my family visited friends to help them sandbag the river banks and watched parts of houses, cars and hundreds of dead and bloated cows rush down the swollen river channel.
Eruption of Mt Saint Helen's
May 18, 1980

May 18, 1980 lives in the minds of most residents of the United States' Pacific Northwest as the day Mt Saint Helen's blew her top in what is the largest volcanic eruption since 1842 when Mt. Rainier, another peak in this same volcanically-formed mountain range, erupted.  You can read an account of the event here.  I remember the eruption less than the effects on global weather for the next year or so as the ash blocked sunlight from Earth's atmosphere.  And bagging ash from a large mound in someone's back yard for sale as a souvenir in some gift shop as a bit of a summer job.  Even in disaster, there's money to be made!

Forest fires at Yellowstone National Park
Summer 1988
Most often attributed to environmental mismanagement the summer months of 1988 saw Yellowstone National Park alight with forest fires.  It was the U.S. Forest Service's policy of natural suppression (let the fires burn themselves out without any attempt to extinguish or control unless/until developed areas or human life is threatened) that drew most of the criticism.  By the time the fire was done, almost 1.2 million acres were blackened - 800,000 acres of it inside the park.  That's an astonishing 36% of the entire area of Yellowstone National Park.  You can see more pictures, read about these aspects of the fire and get an idea of the land's recovery here.

What sticks in my memory is the thick smoke that hung over Shelley (170+ miles away) like a dense fog.  Looking out the front windows at my parent's home, we literally could not see the houses across the street.  And the sun hung blood red over our heads like those frightening descriptions of the end of time from the Book of Revelation in the Bible.

Salt Lake City Tornado
August 11, 1999
Most residents of Salt Lake City had grown up believing that a tornado couldn't happen here but they were wrong!  Tornados, especially ones big enough to get an F rating, are very rare but they do happen.  This one rated an F2 on the Fujita scale.  Wikipedia takes a very good, in depth look.

I'd gone to lunch with some friends from a previous job that day at the Tiffin Room in the old ZCMI downtown.  Toward the end of our meal, the electricity went out and we had to walk down the escalators like they were stairs to get outside.  I remember the store's staff ready to assist anyone who needed a little help down the stair steps and emergency lanterns placed along the way so we could see where to step.  But it wasn't until we stepped out onto the sidewalk that things seemed weird.  The air had an electric charge to it that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand straight.  And all of the brand new landscaping put in for Trax (SLC's light rail public transportation system) was laid down flat.  I went back to my office by walking in through the bank lobby in hopes of finding out what happened.  Thinking I was making a joke I asked the manager "What happened Betty?  You all have a tornado or something?"  In a shaking voice, she answered "yes..." just as a group of building's security staff ran in the other door screaming that the Delta Center (now EnergySolutions Arena - Delta Airlines didn't renew their sponsorship amid economic crises - and home of the Utah Jazz) was gone and that someone had died.  That isn't really quite what happened but it was the initial report I heard and all that flashed in my mind was that the Delta Center was in between my office and home which was only 2 miles away.  That scared me.  I called home to be sure my mom was ok and then tried to get up to my office to check on co-workers and alert our out-of-state supervisors and team members before walking home.  Traffic was absolute gridlock!  And city buses all but stopped running for the afternoon.

The damages downtown were primarily the roof and windows on the Delta Center and at a hotel across the street and the overflow tents from the Summer Show for the Outdoor Retailers Association.  One man was killed when those tents were ripped up and swirled about.  This happened at city center, just west of the area pictured above.  The tornado continued toward the State Capitol Building, Memory Grove and The Avenues residential area of town right at the base of the Wasatch Mountains on the northeast edge of the city.  Many houses were destroyed or badly damaged and several more people were injured.  Memory Grove and the grounds at the Capitol were left barren.  It was sickening and heartbreaking to tour the devastated historic area later...

I've also been in locations to feel several small earthquakes.  No damage, or at least very minor at it's epicenter, so no pictures.  And I survived cancer.  And a house fire.  And... So bring on that plague of locusts and make my experience with disasters complete!

(I say that in jest... really it would be totally creepy!!)

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