President Carter: ‘Moon looks like a golf course’ compared to Mount St. Helens

May 18, 2023, 7:32 AM | Updated: May 19, 2023, 8:16 am

Mount St. Helens President Carter...

President Carter at the Gifford Pinochot NF Office in Vancouver (Photo from the Forest Service shared by the Carter Presidential Library)

(Photo from the Forest Service shared by the Carter Presidential Library)

When Mount St. Helens erupted 43 years ago — on May 18, 1980 — President Jimmy Carter declared all of Washington state a federal disaster area and then paid a visit to see the devastation for himself.

It was announced on Feb. 18 that President Carter – who is 98 years old – was terminally ill and had entered home hospice care. KIRO Newsradio checked with the Carter Center yesterday, and a spokesperson said there are no changes or updates to the original announcement made three months ago.

While the 39th Commander-in-Chief is still with us, it seemed like a good reason to look back to when President Carter visited Washington and Oregon a few days after the 1980 eruption and a great excuse to listen to vintage audio clips from the somewhat unusual presidential visit to the Pacific Northwest.

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Air Force One landed at the Air National Guard Base at Portland International Airport on the evening of Wednesday, May 21, 1980. The entourage traveled by motorcade to a briefing at the Gifford Pinchot National Forest headquarters in Vancouver, Wash., and then to the Marriott Hotel in Portland for the night.

The next morning, President Carter, Washington Governor Dixy Lee Ray, and other officials (and the news media) took off from the air base in a fleet of seven helicopters. For the next hour or so, they viewed mud and debris from the eruption clogging the Columbia River (near the mouth of the Cowlitz, which was also clogged) and blocking freight traffic in the busy corridor; flooding near Longview; homes in the Toutle Valley and other areas damaged by mudflows coming down the Toutle River; and the unimaginable devastation in the immediate vicinity of the volcano.

After the tour, the helicopters landed at Kelso Airport and then went by motorcade a few miles to Cascade Middle School in Longview (home since 1961, as everyone knows, to the mighty Cavaliers.)

School in the Longview/Kelso area had been canceled all week because of the eruption, but the gymnasium at Cascade had been converted into a Red Cross shelter for people who lost their homes or whose homes were now threatened. President Carter met many of the 40 or so people staying at the shelter, listened to their stories, and offered words of support.

Longtime Senator Warren Magnuson of Washington was also on the tour with President Carter that day, and at one point, newspaper accounts say, he and Governor Ray tussled verbally over state versus federal funding required to aid in disaster recovery – Ray wanted federal dollars, Magnuson said the feds were broke.

This was 1980, after all, and the country was deep in an economic downturn, mired in the ongoing Iran hostage crisis, and on the brink of the United States’ boycott of the Summer Olympics in Moscow (in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.)

As it turned out, three of the highest-ranking elected officials who toured the volcano that day – President Carter, Governor Ray, and Senator Magnuson – would lose their reelection bids later that year as the “Reagan landslide” radically changed Evergreen State politics (though Governor Ray would lose earlier in the primary to Jim McDermott.)

But, those elections were still months away when, at the Kelso Airport, President Carter made one of his most memorable comments about the devastation he’d witnessed from the helicopter.

“I’ve never seen or heard of anything like this before,” Carter told the gathered members of the media. “Somebody said it looked like a moonscape. The moon looks like a golf course compared to what’s out there.

“It is a horrible-looking sight.” President Carter said.

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Leaving Kelso, the entourage then headed back to Portland and the Marriott Hotel for a news conference. The president’s remarks made it very clear that what he had seen with his own eyes had made a deep impression.

“The absolute and total devastation of a region . . . encompasses about 150 [square] miles,” President Carter said. “It’s the worst thing I have ever seen. It is literally indescribable, and it’s devastating.

“There is no way to prepare oneself for the sight that we beheld this morning,” the president continued. “I don’t know that … in recorded history in our nation, there has ever been a more formidable explosion.”

And even just four days after the deadly disaster which took the lives of 57 people, President Carter was already looking ahead somewhat presciently, if sheepishly, to what would eventually become the reality of Mount St. Helens once the eruptive activity subsided.

“When safe places are fixed for tourists and others and scientists to come in and observe it,” the president said, “I would say there would be, if you’ll excuse the expression, a tourist attraction that would equal the Grand Canyon or something.”

“It’s an unbelievable sight,” he said.

Air Force One departed from Portland and headed back east. The jet touched down briefly in Spokane so the president could see the ash damage in Eastern Washington and meet with officials there before getting back on the plane and returning to Washington, D.C.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea or a question about Northwest history, please email Feliks here.

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President Carter: ‘Moon looks like a golf course’ compared to Mount St. Helens