Remembering the Teton Flood

On June 5th, 1976 a dam on the Teton River in southeast Idaho broke, and sent a wall of water to the valley below. My home was one of many that was destroyed by this disaster. I was 10 years old. My family was coming home from a camping trip when we heard the news. My sister wanted to listen to the radio so we turned it on. Instead of mid-seventies pop music we heard that our town was under several feet of water.

Fortunately we had a set of grandparents who lived in Blackfoot, Idaho, which we hoped was far enough south to not get hit. We would stay there for a few days until other arrangements could be made. For a time we stayed with some friends of my parents who lived on the ‘hill’ in Rexburg. They had some basement apartments that were used during the school year for Ricks College students, and we stayed there. During this time I was amazed at how calm my parents seemed. I do not know how they did it.

On one of the first days we were back in Rexburg, my parents left us at the Clark building on Campus. There was some kind of child care available there. We did not know how long we would be there. I remember my younger brother, who was four at the time, got a little scared. We climbed to the top of the slippery slide, and from there we could see the road that lead to the building. When my parents would come, they would use that road. We waited there for hours, letting other kids pass by to use the slide. I would pat by brothers shoulder, and tell him it was all right. ‘Mom and Dad will come back’, I would say to him. Inwardly I would say, ‘Please come back Mom and Dad’.

We lost nearly everything. Our house, our clothes, our food storage, our photographs, important records, everything. One day it was all there, the next it was all gone. In time, there was government reimbursement, but we did not know that at the time. I have become quite a worrier in life, and I often fear catastrophes in my personal life. I often wonder if experiencing this flood as an impressionable ten year old may have contributed to this. My mom was concerned when she saw my friends and I making dams out of the flood mud, and constructing little towns below – only to have them wiped out by breaking the dam. Perhaps she was right to be concerned.

Another thing I experienced was how important the church was. After the flood waters were gone, people went to their stake centers for help. Many busses came full of people with shovels and wheelbarrows who were there to help people dig out and salvage whatever they could. There was other help at the stake centers also. You could go there for a simple meal, or a can of pop. The facilities of Ricks College were also available and helped feed a lot of people. The dorms were open to many people in the community also. What a blessing it was to have this help!

I believe this was one of the first times the church mobilized with this type of disaster relief in modern times. I saw first hand how the church could be a good and important safety net. It is good to be close to the church. We lived next door to our stake center, and I drank a lot of sprite and grape nehi for a few days. What a comfort that was.

I am grateful that there was not more loss of life in this disaster, and that it happened in the daytime with a few hours of warning. I am also grateful for the relief efforts that were made so long ago. In time homes, businesses, schools, etc., were rebuilt, and life eventually became normal again. But in some ways, I still think I feel some effects from the flood.

14 Responses to “Remembering the Teton Flood”

  1. 1 Ardis Parshall September 19, 2007 at 10:45 pm

    I was a few days away from graduating from high school, in Las Vegas. Didn’t know anybody in Idaho, had no personal connection there. But just seeing the title of your post, even before reading your thoughtful remarks, brought back feelings from those days, both how bad we all felt for those in the path of the flood, and pride in the way it was handled — pride in the church organization, but also pride in humanity, in the behavior of those who lost their homes and farms and didn’t give up, and those who rushed to help. Sometimes you just have to be glad to be part of the human race.

  2. 3 Bandanamom September 20, 2007 at 9:53 am

    Hi Eric!

    I saw this on the Archipeligo and was obviously intrigued!

    I think about the flood sometimes – you know it seems like I can go quite a while and almost forget about it and then someone at church will start talking about preparing for a disaster, and that really brings back these memories.

    Of course, Eric knows that I would have also been 10 – stragely enough Eric and I knew each other from about 4th grade on and I recently stumbled across him here on the bloggernacle.

    My story of the flood is that it was a totally gorgeous summer day. My mom took my 3 sisters and I shopping in town (we lived slightly west of town), we were in a clothing store called Macdonald’s when the cashier told us they were saying on the radio that the teton dam had broke.

    We hopped in our big green station wagon and started driving towards home. My mom flipped on the radio and we listened all the way to them telling us to evacuate. I don’t think I imagined it was quite the emergency that it really was. That water was moving fast, but at the time, I wasn’t scared. When we got home we ran inside and grabbed some clothes, my mom grabbed all of our nicest church dresses (which I still laugh about…what good did that do?) and a huge tupperware container of cookies from our pantry. I remember my mom going around to each bedroom and putting the bedspreads up off the corners of the bed. I guess her idea was that if it flooded the floor of the room it wouldn’t ruin the bedspread.

    We drove into town and found my dad on his mail route (he was delivering in your neighborhood Eric) – my dad said he was going to drive back in to the post office and see what they wanted him to do. I don’t remember for sure but we must have followed him over there and they told him he needed to go with his family. I know we were listening to the radio the whole time and I also remember my mom was really worried about my aunt and cousins who lived right next to the river. She was also worried about her parents as she hadn’t talked to them either. We drove from the post office to Ricks College and the next thing I remember is being in the Manwaring Building or outside the Manwaring Building pretty much all day.

    I remember eating there and then wondering where we were going to stay during the night. My dad knew a guy who owned some pretty new student apartments going up towards the water tower and he offered us an apartment. We found my aunt and cousins on campus and my dad arranged for them to have an apartment too. I remember driving up high on the hill and watching the waters as they began flooding the town. I remember seeing houses travelling down mainstreet. It was astonishing.

    I remember that we didn’t have any water for about 24 hours or so and until the water came they rationed out whatever liquids they could find on campus for each family. We got a case of Strawberry Crush pop in the bottles. I still love Strawberry Crush, I find it oddly comforting somehow. Later in the week the Red Cross started giving us bottled water and goats milk (which we thought was super disgusting). I know they gave us other food too – there must have been a food box with dry cereal and a few things like that. We still ate on campus too.

    My dad was in the National Guard and he got called in by them. He ended up sitting in a makeshift morgue overnight with the body of an elderly lady who had a heart attack because the flood scared her so badly. Later on he was able to get on a boat and survey the damage. He reported back to my mom that our house was still there, he could see it, but that most people weren’t so lucky. We lived on a slight hill just up from the Teton River and that hill saved our house. My cousins house was completely gone.

    I don’t know how long it was – maybe 2 weeks? When we were allowed to go back to our house. My cousins had to stay on campus most of the summer. I remember President Kimball coming to campus and speaking in the Hart auditorium and I remember what a big deal that was. I do remember feeling comforted by the things he said, although I don’t remember exactly what it was. I think it was a general feeling that we would pull together as a community and that the church would take care of us in some way – maybe I felt that way from being on campus, from being able to have been fed for a couple of weeks by the people there. I don’t know why exactly but I really felt safe the whole time. Maybe it was a false sense of security, but I did.

    The basement of our home was completely ruined, but upstairs was just fine. Our neighbors 2 houses down were at the bottom of the hill and their house was completely gone. It just floated away somewhere, all that remained was the empty foundation.

    We spent hours and hours and hours mucking out mud from the basement. We spent hours throwing away all our food storage. A freezer full of rotton meat and can after can after can of bottled peaches and cherries. All the food storage in our basement had to be thrown out – they told us it was all contaminated, even if the metal containers looked okay, you couldn’t use it. Not surprisingly, that was the end of my mom keeping a 2 year supply. It just about killed her to throw all that out. After that my family only had about a 2 or 3 week supply of food.

    I do remember the busloads of people coming to help from Utah.

    Strangely, it didn’t affect me in a way that made me worried about something tragic happening. Maybe because for my family things worked out okay and everytime there would have been a cause for concern the problems were solved either by my own family, the church or the government.

    Most of the people we knew and loved had no homes, had to live in HUD trailers for the next year of so, and lost everything. And yet, somehow, it all seemed like an adventure to me. I remember being jealous of my cousins and grandparents because they got HUD trailers and we didn’t!

    Sorry this is so long. I guess I don’t get a chance to talk about this very often –

    Thanks for posting on this Eric.

  3. 4 Susan M September 20, 2007 at 11:32 am

    My husband was a kid in Pocatello and he told me about the flood. We watch a lot of engineering tv shows and it’s not unusual for him to bring up the Teton dam. He remembers everybody dropping everything to go help clean up and support those who’d lost their homes.

  4. 5 Eric Nielson September 20, 2007 at 11:34 am

    Wow Bandanamom.

    You remember a lot more than I do.

    We got one of the HUD trailers. It wasn’t that great.

    My parents kind of kept us away from the house and the cleanup. Our place was damaged pretty bad, and it probably wasn’t very safe to get into.

  5. 6 Eric Nielson September 20, 2007 at 11:36 am

    Hey Susan M.

    Yes, there was a lot of help and service going on. Quite different from the looting one might expect in bigger cities today.

  6. 7 Todd Wood September 21, 2007 at 11:19 am

    “Quite different from the looting one might expect in bigger cities today.”

    Yep, I love that about southeastern Idaho.

    Eric, I was a kid in Idaho Falls. I remember hanging out with my dad, helping the community build high sand bag walls down along the Snake.

  7. 8 Keryn Ross September 22, 2007 at 10:00 pm

    I first learned about the Teton Dam failure on a geology field trip up Rexburg way, in 1996. We had a lecture about it and then the next morning we went to an overlook and talked about it some more. Our professors knew quite a bit about the aftermath and included the response of the Church in the discussion. (After all, it was a BYU field trip!) It is fascinating to hear your experiences with this event.

  8. 9 Becky September 24, 2007 at 5:31 pm

    I remember watching the news about the Teton Dam breaking from my living room floor in Colorado when I was only 6 years old. I still remember feeling awful for those poor people who lost everything and wondering for weeks afterwards about them. Little did I know that I was wondering about my future husband. Love you, Eric!

  9. 11 Mom October 6, 2007 at 1:13 pm

    Hi, Eric. We just read your blog tonight. I remember driving up the road to the college child care and seeing you and Kevin sitting on top of the slide waiting for us. It broke my heart to know how worried you both were. I know you were worried, too, but he really didn’t understand why he had lost everything and now his parents were leaving him at this place. They told us that the mud was very contaminated and that children shouldn’t be allowed near it at first and we needed to try to salvage some things at the house and shovel mud because we didn’t know for sometime what would be done about the house, so we had to take you all to the college. It really was a nice child care and they took special care of you all, but it was a hard situation for everyone.

    It was a difficult time but everyone was amazed and I still am amazed at the outpouring of help that came from everywhere and how people worked together. Remember the “Wrecksburg” float at the 4th of July parade? Can you believe that there was a 4th of July parade that year? Only one month after it happened.

    Well, you brought back some memories.

  10. 12 Eric Nielson October 8, 2007 at 8:39 am

    Thanks, Mom.

    I don’t think at all that leaving us at the child care that day was the wrong thing. It was a difficult time.

  11. 13 Chris March 6, 2008 at 1:34 pm

    I just stumbled on this site and saw mention of Teton Dam and wanted to make a small contribution to the discussion. In the summer of 1977, maybe 1978, while a graduate student in history at the Univ. of Utah, I worked for Prof. Ross Peterson at Utah State, collecting oral histories of survivors of the flood. These interviews were conducted and taped at what was then Ricks College and consisted of a series of specific questions about flood experiences. The effect of this opportunity on me was profound and has stayed with me over the years. Listening to grown men brought to tears over the loss of their cherished missionary scriptures and men and women shaken to the core by the destruction of years of family photos, genealogy and other keepsakes gave me a profound respect for the forces of nature and the lack of foresight of government. From what I understand, these tapes and perhaps transcriptions are in the library at Utah State for anyone who is interested.

  1. 1 Eric’s Post on the Teton Dam Flood « Heart Issues for LDS Trackback on September 21, 2007 at 11:33 am

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