Breaking Point: Teton Dam Disaster in Idaho


Early on Saturday afternoon, June 5, Cynthia Lyman, a medical technologist in Salt Lake City, heard a radio report that Rexburg, Idaho, had been flooded when the Teton Dam gave way. Without hesitation she filled the backseat of her car with containers of water, drove the 240 miles to the disaster scene, and, after talking her way through police blockades, began helping her grandmother clean up her water-damaged home.

Robert Willmore, an assistant to the president of the priests quorum in Hibbard, Idaho, was working outside the valley when he learned of the disaster. He immediately returned home. “I was told our house had been completely submerged, but when I got home I found it wasn’t even touched.” He stayed to help clean the homes of ward members who were in the path of the flood.

Cynthia and Robert are just two of the many young Saints who responded to the June 5, 1976 Teton Dam burst by helping to clean up the wreckage caused by the waters of the 17-mile-long reservoir that had broken that day.

The break occurred about noon. By nightfall more than 2,000 homes were destroyed or damaged. One of the first organizations to respond to the crisis was the Church. Aid arrived in Rexburg only 5 1/2 hours after the flood.

Ricks College, situated on high ground in the southeast part of Rexburg, opened its campus to the homeless, and college classes were cancelled as the youth responded to the situation. The college quickly housed 2,000 flood victims. A volunteer center was set up in the Manwaring Student Center and meals were served in the cafeteria.

Medical services were initiated and two babies were delivered on campus within five days after the flood. Gradually tales of courage, determination, and even humor emerged from the stricken area.

Jack Reinwand, of the campus police, reported that campus and city officers patrolled the streets to help stragglers move to the college and safety before the flood waters hit Rexburg. “Jim Sessions and I were going up Main Street when we saw a young man, about 15, running up the street as hard as he could go. The water was only two city blocks away, so we pulled over and picked him up. He managed to gasp something about a sister or girl at home.”

The officers raced to the home and the youth dashed inside to get the young lady. There was a delay. The officer and his companion looked up the street, where just one block away the flood, tumbling a house trailer and a Cadillac, was bearing down on them. Brother Sessions, who is also a branch president on the campus, then ran in the house and brought the pair out. They jumped into the car and sped off, scant seconds in front of the flood.

Minutes later 10,000 people standing on the campus hill watched the flood waters tear into their community. Huge logs from a sawmill on the northeast edge of town battered through town, striking houses, businesses, and even airplanes at the airport. In one section all but eight homes in a 55-home tract were moved from their foundations, many smashed apart. More than 200 businesses were ruined as the waters swept through town on the way to Idaho Falls, Blackfoot, and other communities in the Snake River Valley. A reservoir farther downstream was able to contain the flood and halt further damage to Idaho communities.

Utilizing the campus as a base, President Mark Ricks of the Rexburg Regional Welfare Services and other LDS leaders met to assess the situation and to organize the Saints to deal with the aftermath. The waters soon receded, but there was no power in most of Rexburg or in surrounding communities. There was no outside telephone service, no drinking water outside the campus area, and no sewage services. All had been damaged or destroyed in the flood.

Ward bishops organized their leaders and sent them into the homes to assess damages there. A list of missing homes and missing persons was made even as Church headquarters in Salt Lake City dispatched relief supplies. The Idaho National Guard, largely staffed by LDS individuals, moved into the area to help rebuild the damaged roads and to bury the thousands of cattle and other livestock killed in the disaster.

Teams went to the various homes in an effort to render aid and locate missing persons. Daily ward meetings were held to help coordinate relief efforts. Crews of young volunteers helped to staff the Manwaring Center cafeteria, which fed 4,000 persons each meal during the first days of the flood. Others worked in the nursery tending children for Saints who were feverishly working to clear their homes of debris and silt in an attempt to minimize damage.

One of the first wards to organize their cleanup efforts was at Hibbard, about six miles northwest of Rexburg. Aaronic Priesthood-age youths, including Robert Willmore, were organized into teams and were sent into the homes of the elderly to help them with the tedious task of cleaning the homes and repairing the damage caused by the water.

Brent Bell, first counselor in the Hibbard Ward Bishopric, reported that 12 homes were missing, 30 were relatively undamaged, but about 118 homes in the community “are full of mud, the furniture ruined, and the basements full of water. The roads were damaged, and people can’t even get equipment in to work on their homes. So the youth in our ward are providing the muscle power for the elderly. Eventually, though, we’ll get into every home.”

The Wilford Ward, located in a community of the same name northeast of Rexburg, was not so fortunate. The chapel was destroyed, as was the chapel in Sugar City. It was reported that only 28 homes in Wilford were not badly damaged. Thirty-four were ruined and 78 destroyed, according to a bishop’s report issued just after that fateful weekend. Many homes in Wilford, Sugar City, Rexburg, and elsewhere were never found by their owners; the force of the debris-laden waters demolished them and scattered portions through the Snake River Valley.

Losses included heavy construction equipment, airplanes, farm machines, irrigation ditches and canals, and thousands of acres of crops. One young farmer reported his 60-acre farm was covered with rocks and gravel.

The railroad between Rexburg and Sugar City was washed from the tracks, with portions being carried one-quarter mile away. Other portions were upended and resembled giant picket fences.

With Cynthia Lyman, two cousins from two other families—Marshall Lyman, also of Salt Lake City, and David Lyman—helped their grandmother clean up her Rexburg home. David reported his parents’ home in Sugar City also sustained extensive water damage. “We stayed there until the water came, then we came here and packed things upstairs from the basement until the flood got here. Grandma didn’t want to leave, but we talked her into it.”

In addition to logs, fenceposts, and other debris, a 10,000 -gallon fuel tank came to rest in Sister Lyman’s yard. “Well, at least I have my year’s supply of fuel,” she joked.

Other incidents of humor originated by the unbeaten Saints included Brother Bell’s comment that he was in Omaha, Nebraska, when the flood hit. “I’d asked a neighbor to take care of the fields for me. When I got home and saw that about 10 feet of water had ripped through my farm, I told him, ‘That’s the last time I’ll ever ask you to irrigate.’”

Another reported that her neighbor’s house had torn loose from the foundation and was now resting against her home. “I asked her to visit me, but she didn’t need to bring her house with her.”

Assistance for the Saints included installation of mobile homes on individual properties, distribution of Church welfare goods, and emergency financing of missionaries of families hurt by the flood.

Bishop Victor Brown, Presiding Bishop, and Sister Barbara Smith, General President of the Relief Society, visited the Saints in the area. Bishop Brown urged the people to do everything the Lord’s way, and they would be blessed. He said the Lord doesn’t make it easy for them at times, “but for the valiant there is no breaking point.”

[photos] Photos by Lynn Tilton

[photo] Idaho flood water tore many homes from their foundation as the crest ripped through Snake River Valley communities on its final rendezvous downriver where another reservoir absorbed the water that spilled through the broken Teton Dam. Photo courtesy Ricks College News Service

[photo] Thousands of meals were served daily at the Manwaring Center at Ricks College. There were no stores opened during the first days after the flood had struck the community

[photo] Youths also helped after the flood by volunteering to tend children so the parents could clean up their damaged houses

[photo] This automobile is one of hundreds that were tumbled by the waters. This particular car belonged to a Sugar City resident, a community particularly hard hit by the disaster

[photo] Cynthia Lyman and her grandmother, Angie Lyman of Rexburg, pause to talk with Church officials concerning the damage to sister Lyman’s home

[photo] The Hal Ferguson family of Hibbard clean up the debris left by the floodwaters. Nine of their thirteen children assist in the work