“Flood Victims Receive Aid,” Ensign, Aug. 1976, 74–76
Diapers by the dozen, seven hundred wheelbarrows, 20,000 pairs of pants, shoes, boots, tents, mattresses, blankets, baby foods, powdered milk, macaroni, and spaghetti were among the many and varied items supplied the Teton Dam flood victims from the bishops storehouse in Salt Lake City.
Within a few hours of the news reports of the disaster, a truck left Salt Lake City for Rexburg carrying bedding, tents, and water-purifying tablets.
The first contact with Rexburg was made through President Ferron W. Sonderegger, president of the Rexburg Idaho North Stake, where six out of nine wards had been devastated by the flood.
“When the flood hit, it was obvious we were going to need help,” says President Sonderegger. “Communication within the area wasn’t very good because you couldn’t be sure of where anyone else was. The only thing I knew was that my people needed help, and in a situation such as we went through the first priesthood holder on the scene has to take charge until the proper organization can come into effect. I telephoned the Presiding Bishop’s office in Salt Lake City and the Church switchboard operator did everything he could to locate someone to help. Finally he made contact with Brother R. Quinn Gardner, director of Welfare Services Production-Distribution. He had heard of the flood on the radio and had already made provision for a truck to be loaded with supplies.”
That first truck was followed by many more, and a bishops storehouse was established at Ricks College.
Located on a hill overlooking Rexburg, Ricks College became the focal point of the Church’s relief operations. Its summer school was delayed for a week, its student housing was opened to some 2,000 people who could not find housing with relatives or friends, its Manwaring Student Center became the Church’s command post, its cafeteria provided three meals a day—feeding up to 30,000 in one day five days after the flood—and it was a source of information on missing persons and the whereabouts of supplies. The Manwaring Center also provided housing for a first aid station, a check-in station for volunteers and those who needed volunteer help, a supply center, and even a source of relaxation as family movies were shown afternoons and evenings.
Elsewhere on campus, state and federal agencies set up offices, a temporary nursery was opened so that harried parents could keep their children out of contaminated mud and water, and five telephone lines were patched in, carrying as many as 1,000 calls a day as people made contact with the outside world.
Initially, Rexburg and the surrounding area lost telephone contact as lines went down and power was cut. Amateur radio operators moved into the area and opened up lines of communication that proved invaluable.
It was through the help of an amateur radio operator that President Sonderegger continued to make contact with Salt Lake City, where Brother Gardner and his associates stood ready to render whatever assistance they could. Other Welfare Services officials with expertise in emergency relief operations were dispatched to Rexburg to assist in coordinating the Church efforts with those of the National Guard, the Civil Defense, Red Cross, and other volunteer agencies.
Bishop Victor L. Brown, presiding bishop of the Church, Dr. James O. Mason, director of Church Welfare Services, and Sister Barbara B. Smith, general Relief Society president, arrived in Rexburg two days after the flood to assess the needs of the Saints and to gain firsthand knowledge of the relief operations. They met with the Saints and encouraged them to channel their efforts through the priesthood line of authority. Wards were encouraged to meet daily to coordinate the individual and family efforts and to exchange information.
“One of the major lessons we learned from this experience was the need to go through priesthood channels,” said President Sonderegger. “As we had offers from other stakes outside of the flood area, I invited six stake presidents to work on a one-to-one basis with six of my bishops whose wards had been badly hit.
“When these stake presidents met with me and learned what had to be done, they just went to work and coordinated the effort from their individual stakes to meet the needs of the ward to which they had been assigned. All the assistance that we are receiving, both from within the Church and from other agencies, is now being channeled through those stake presidents to the wards, the families, and the individual.”
The stakes that moved in to help the stricken wards were the Idaho Falls Idaho West, North, East, and Ammon Stakes, the Iona Idaho Stake, and the Briggs Idaho Stake.
Since the initial clean-up task began, other stakes have been sending in work crews assigned to specific families and homes. Bus-loads of Saints from Salt Lake City and other areas have set out for Rexburg in the early hours of the morning, carrying with them their own food and drinking water as well as luncheons for the families that they are assisting.
“I feel that I have seen the welfare plan work perfectly,” said President Sonderegger. “Oh, I thought I understood the welfare plan pretty well before this happened, but now I’ve seen it in action, and it can be an example to all the world.”