Continuing with my disaster resume, here’s my recollection of the 1976 Teton Dam collapse.
Teton Dam spillway (before collapse)
The Teton Dam was an earthen dam on the Teton River, just a few miles from Newdale, Idaho. The dam was started in 1972 and when done, filling began in October 1975. A few days before the actual collapse on June, 5, 1976, a small leak appeared. Authorities worked to stop this supposedly minor leak. But it just got larger and on June 5, the end was near. An incredible series of pictures is located here.
It was a beautiful day in Idaho Falls, Idaho. I shared a house, located on the banks of the Snake River in Idaho Falls, with a couple of women. At that time, I was a quality control manager at a potato processing plant in Ririe, a tiny town about 20 miles northeast of Idaho Falls. One of my jobs was to pull sneak inspections, even on weekends. So that sunny morning, I drove to Ririe and did my thing.
Failure of the first half of the dam.
When I got home about noon, both ladies I roomed with were watching TV (the Muppet Show). All of a sudden, the show was interrupted with news of the Teton Dam collapse. We were glued to the TV because we all had friends in the Rexburg area and wondered what it would all mean. Soon we found out that Rexburg was flooded and the water was going to come into the Snake River with gusto.
By that time, local officials had stopped by and recommended that we consider evacuation due to the potential flooding. So we contacted some friends and started quickly packing stuff. Mostly we loaded up furniture, including a piano. With the help of friends and the fact that we didn’t really have all that much stuff, we were packed up within a few hours.
After getting all that done, the waters had not yet hit the Snake River by us, so we decided to stay where we were and see what was going to happen. Several friends came by and we just hung out watching the river and listening to the news on the radio.
The flooded falls in Idaho Falls
Finally, very early on Sunday morning, things began to happen. We (I and friends) were sitting near the bank of the river just watching debris float by. The river was about 6-8 feet below me, so I wasn’t too worried. All of a sudden there was tremendous noise. We jumped up to see where it was coming from and then looked at the river. YIKES – it was rising incredibly fast; so fast that we scrambled to get away before it overtook us.
Yup, the river breached its bank by our house. Someone ran out to the main street (Yellowstone Highway) and flagged down a sand truck. They came into our area and dumped tons of sand, left us shovels and burlap bags. Guess you know what we did!
The area I lived in was just off the highway and there were only 3 houses back there. The owner of our house lived next door. The other people were out of town. We all sandbagged for hours to keep the water from getting to our houses.
I also had a dog (American Eskimo) who was in the fenced front yard. At one point, someone stopped by and was going to take the dog because they thought she was abandoned. Thankfully I saw them in time so my dog was safe. I then up a sign so it wouldn’t happen again. We were all quite busy sandbagging out back.
Although we successfully sandbagged to protect the homes, local authorities came by later that day and made us evacuate. They wer seriously considering having to blow up the bridge that was just upstream. A lot of debris was building up on the bridge and causing more flooding into the downtown area. By blowing up the debris dam (and part of the bridge), they could reduce the flooding upstream. Of course, blowing up everything would not be good for us.
We left the area and spent the night with friends. Up at the crack of dawn, we returned to find that they were able to break up the debris without blowing up the bridge. The sandbags held so we were all feeling thankful. And then those darn local authorities showed up again. Water was receding upstream and causing a second wave (pun intended) of flooding downstream. That was us.
Once again, we watched the water and soon noticed it rising again. But we were prepared this time. We were already on the route for sand delivery, so it was just deja vu–shovel sand into bags, give bag to someone else, deposit bag in the best place (where ever that would be at the time).
One more time, the sandbagging held back the flood waters. Stay tuned for part 2.