“Thousands of Saints Left Homeless by Idaho Flood,” Ensign, Aug. 1976, 69–74
Buffeted by an unseasonably cold and fierce wind, the helicopter gently snuggled down on the mud-caked field on the edge of the small town. The sputtering whine of its motor ceased and its rotor blades drooped to a halt. Doors opened and out stepped President Spencer W. Kimball. There was no waiting crowd to greet him as he got into a car and went on a brief tour of the town before returning to the helicopter. As he was driven around the broken streets, he saw houses wrenched from their foundations, cars nestled in trees, road surfaces ruptured and scattered, downed power and telephone lines, houses turned into kindling, buildings blasted open as if by a bomb, walls that had been stripped of their brick facing, and mud-covered prized possessions everywhere. The president was in what was left of Sugar City, one of several Idaho communities ravaged when the 307-foot high Teton Dam burst on Saturday, June 5.
The 250,000 acre-feet of water that broke through the dam flooded and wrecked thousands of homes along a 65-mile course, leaving 7,000 Saints homeless and destroying all of the community of Wilford, and much of Sugar City and Rexburg. Surrounding communities received a mud bath, and some 30,000 acres of farmland were ruined.
The flood waters then traveled southward through Idaho Falls, where the Snake River rose dangerously close to the sandbagged temple, on through Blackfoot, where a main highway and some homes were flooded, and finally into the American Falls Dam, where the water was controlled.
Miraculously, only a handful of people had perished, a fact President Kimball made repeated reference to when he spoke in two special conference sessions at Rexburg on the weekend following the flood. He told the Saints to be strong, to prepare for a long, hard haul as they set out to recover what they could and rebuild. With him was Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Council of the Twelve, the adviser to the Idaho area.
Speaking at the conference sessions, held on the Ricks College campus, Elder Packer told the Saints, “I know there are times when you would want to give up, or to weep, or to yield, but you have got to stand steady as an example to others.”
Elder Packer said that he had heard someone ask, “What did we do wrong to deserve such a disaster?” “The answer is,” he said, “probably nothing. If you attach tragedy or suffering or disaster to sin only, how do you explain the suffering of Christ? Fine people, living worthily, can be subject to disasters such as you have faced here. The difference will be in how you face it.”
Elder Packer said that “it is not without probability that all of us will face challenges such as this in the generation ahead and that this is a suiting up and a preparing for all of us.”
President Kimball urged parents to gather their children around them in family home evenings in which they can share their fears, their joys, and their experiences throughout the disaster, and to plan together for the future. “We cannot overstress the importance of reestablishing family patterns,” he said.
He encouraged the Saints to remember and to emulate the pioneers, who, when undergoing their greatest hardships, danced and sang together to lift their spirits at the end of “difficult, worrisome, and wearisome days.”
Addressing himself to the practicalities of rebuilding he said, “We know there are many questions about government assistance. We remind all that even in emergencies eternal principles govern. As we rebuild we must protect our integrity and our self-respect. There are proper sources of help and there are some which might be questioned. We urge you to consult with your bishops on these questions. Just remember that as a people we have always been blessed when we have followed the Lord’s plan.”
For most of the Saints, the Sabbath day of President Kimball’s visit was the first day that they had stopped from their frantic labors of digging out from under the tons of mud and debris that had become a natural part of the landscape.
Approximately 3,000 homes had been ruined by the floodwaters, along with many businesses, schools, and much farmland. In some areas the force of the water had stripped the earth down four, five, and six feet to bare rock, while in other areas the water had left behind a layer of rock and gravel up to two feet deep across the once arable land.
Eleven Church buildings received water damage, and the Wilford Ward meetinghouse was so badly damaged that it had to be razed. In the two-ward Sugar City meetinghouse the walls broke and floors collapsed, but it can be rebuilt.
For most people, the fury of the flood came as a complete surprise. Residents of Sugar City and Rexburg thought that by the time the erupting water reached their communities it would be perhaps two or three feet high. But they had to scramble for their lives.
Gordon Clark of Sugar City was on a rise overlooking the dam when the water broke through. “The canyon leading from the dam is forty feet deep and the water was up over the edge. By the time it reached the mouth of the canyon it must have topped fifty feet.”
That wall of water hit the community of Wilford and washed it off the map. Not only were houses smashed from their foundations, but the foundations were ripped up and washed away as well.
As the water reached Sugar City it spread out, but it was still a frightening fifteen feet high and moving fast. Sugar City resident Norman Gage saw it coming. “It looked like a rolling wall coming at us. We took off and headed for Ricks College.”
Although his home suffered considerable damage Brother Gage says, “We don’t feel like the odds are against us. We know who the Ruler is, and we can make it. We’ll build up this town again.”
This spirit of rebuilding, of rebirth, is echoed time and time again by those who have lost their homes, their businesses, and their farms.
Brother and Sister Tom Kershaw of the Sugar City First Ward got out of the city about an hour before the flood hit. Brother Kershaw, who is superintendent of Sugar City schools and president of the Ricks College Thirteenth Branch, said that houses in the pathway of the water were picked up and smashed against a corner of his home. They took off the garage and utility room and damaged the rest of the house.
“When we drove away from here to go over to Rexburg everything was so beautiful, and peaceful, and green, and now it makes you feel sick to your stomach just to look. It wasn’t just the flood, it was the force behind it that caused so much damage. That force did things that you just can’t imagine.” Adds Sister Kershaw, “If you could have seen this street on Saturday morning, it was the prettiest street in the whole world. Everybody’s lawns looked so pretty, and the flowers were coming out. Now, if it would do any good you’d cry, and of course you do cry, but I guess you just have to grin and bear it.”
“We’ll just have to play it one day at a time, I guess,” said Brother Kershaw. “I think most people are resigned to the situation. You just have to salvage what you can and start all over. We’ve made it before. We’ll make it again. It all goes to show how puny we really are. We get to thinking we’re pretty great sometimes. Maybe this is a good lesson for us.”
When the dam broke an evacuation alert went out over radio and television, and law enforcement officials drove up and down streets and country roads telling people to leave for higher ground. Approximately 95 percent of the population in the area is Latter-day Saint, and ward members ran to warn their neighbors. Many failed to heed the warning until the water could be seen and heard.
One who missed the initial evacuation activity was Sister Leah Weston of the Sugar City Second Ward. Living with her married sister and her family, Sister Weston had planned to accompany them on a trip out of town but had decided not to do so at the last minute. No one knew that she was still in the house, and she did not have a radio on. She became the sole resident of Sugar City as the floodwaters raced through.
“The first thing I heard was the city fire siren going. I looked out of the window and couldn’t see anything and I went back to my dinner. Then the siren sounded again and I went outside. One of our neighbors across the street said he didn’t know what the siren was going for because there wasn’t a fire. I had just gone back into the house when he came knocking at the door to tell me that the dam had burst. He asked me if I wanted to leave town with him and his wife, but I didn’t really know for sure. He said he would drive over to the fire station and if the reports were bad he would come back and get me. I don’t have a car, and I can’t drive anyway.
“Well, he and his wife went over to the fire station and then the water started coming in and the police wouldn’t let him come back and everybody left town. Of course, if he hadn’t driven into Rexburg he wouldn’t have gotten out of the way of that water rushing in.
“The first I heard of the water was a rumbling sound and then the door of our furnace room outside the house was ripped off. The next thing I knew the water had broken through our back door and was coming at me. I started up the stairs when the water started coming up after me. I just had to sit down on the stairs and I shook. I just didn’t know what was going to happen. After a while it looked as though the water wasn’t going to come any higher and I got myself upstairs.”
From the bedroom windows, Sister Weston saw houses, cattle, cars, trees, barrels, and debris of all kinds rushing past the house. The house was protected when a floating tree jammed across two box elder trees and formed a barrier to protect the house.
“I saw bits of furniture bobbing out of a neighbor’s house, and then a big grain bin was being swept along and it lodged behind our house. Behind that was another building that had been picked up by the water. A trailer house parked down the street was picked up and carried into a neighbor’s garage and dropped down just as though you had wanted it there. Another trailer was washed down the street and a coal truck was picked up and dumped on someone’s lawn a block or so away.”
Sister Weston spent some sixteen hours in the house before she was helped by a man who had come to check his daughter’s house nearby.
“It’s not something I would want to go through again. But I’m alive and I feel very fortunate.”
From Sugar City, the wall of water raced on to the north side of Rexburg, where it hit Hibbard before moving into the city and the downtown area.
“We had about three hours to prepare here in Rexburg after the dam burst, but there was a lot of scepticism,” according to Ricks College security officer Jack Reinwand. “I know I thought that we might have one or two feet of water, and the downtown businessmen were preparing to keep that much out of their stores and offices. But Bill Sessions, another security officer, and I drove downtown and there was a tidal wave coming at us.”
As the water raged through Hibbard it demolished a new housing division, washed away a trailer court, cut away chunks of road to a depth of four feet, and established new riverbeds. As it struck Rexburg, it tore through a sawmill and the trees it picked up acted as battering rams throughout the city. Water, mud, and debris swirled into homes and stores. Many businessmen lost their merchandise and their display cases and had bloated cattle left in their stead.
Brother and Sister Martell Grover of the Rexburg First Ward owned a jewelry and watchmaking business on Rexburg’s Main Street. They lost everything. “We had a dead calf between our house and its foundation, and a dead cow in our backyard,” said Brother Grover. “We’ve lost our home and our business; there’s nothing to salvage.
“We come into the world naked, and I guess that we’re being shown that we can go out that way, too.”
Brother and Sister Conald Carlsen of the Rexburg Ninth Ward had their home and two apartments that they rent flooded.
“We have been working for the past four or five years to get our home fixed up so that when retirement came around we’d be ready for it and we wouldn’t have any major expenses to meet,” said Brother Carlsen. “Now we’ve not only got the house to fix up again, but we also have to strip out the apartment basements and rebuild them.
“We’re not despondent, but it’s a discouraging thing to have happen. We had what we thought was close to a two-year supply of food and other necessities. It’s taken a long time to gather together. We had ten children so we were living hand-to-mouth for quite a bit, putting away a little at a time as we could afford to do so. I think we can probably save most of our canned and bottled produce, but this morning I just had to dump 250 pounds of meat from the freezer.
“Lots of dreams that we had, and that other people had, have been muddied. But the attitude of most people we have talked to is that of trying to rebuild and live with what we can.”
“Generally speaking, the vast majority of people are willing to dig in and rebuild,” said President Mark G. Ricks, president of Rexburg Idaho Stake and Rexburg Regional Welfare Services leader. “There are some who are discouraged right now because they feel that perhaps they are too old to start again, but the overall attitude is one of optimism with people looking forward to building a better community. That is something that will come about with the people ready as they now are to do it themselves.”
President Ricks, who was in charge of the relief operations for the Church, said that an important lesson to be learned from the experience, and one that could be applied to similar situations by Saints anywhere, was to avoid panic, to accept life as it comes.
“In the mass meeting that we held for everyone on the Sunday following the flood, we tried to point out to our people that we had to accept things as they came. We can’t just quit. It’s our community, it’s our personal affairs that we are involved in, and we’ve just got to get moving.”
President Ricks said that when news of the dam break was received, it was a mass exodus. “The roads around the campus were lined with cars and the hillside here was covered with people. We all sat here watching that water rush through our homes and our community. I was dumbfounded, I just couldn’t believe my eyes. As far as we could see to the east, fifteen miles to the north, and a large area to the west became a lake of water.”
One of those who watched was Bishop Melvin Richardson of the Ammon Fifth Ward, Idaho Falls Idaho Ammon Stake, who was on news assignment for a local television station.
“I saw one man,” he recalls, “who was sitting on the hood of his car using binoculars to watch the wave of water move through the town. He told me he was looking at his house and when I asked him how it was doing he said, ‘Fine. It’s just going around the bend.’ It was a brick house and we estimated that it traveled a mile in about three minutes before coming to a halt.
“That water came through and hit a line of trees and they just went down. A haystack with hundreds of bales of hay in it just exploded on impact.”
Brother and Sister Jerry Glenn were among many families who were separated by the flood. When the flood came, Brother Glenn, a genealogy teacher and staff member of the Ricks College library, was out of town in the family car.
“My children and I were getting ready to go out and work in the garden,” says Sister Glenn, “and my neighbor came over and told me that the Teton Dam was breaking and that I should get the children together and leave. My husband was out of town and using our car, so we knelt down in the garage where I had told the children to gather their toys from outside, and we had a word of prayer. About that time some friends from Archer knocked at our door. They were in town to do some shopping and they thought of me at home alone with the children and came by to see what they could do to help. Well, we got most of our food supply from the basement to the upstairs and then we packed a suitcase. We went home with them to Archer where there was no flooding, and then after the main flood had passed, we went up to Ricks College campus and looked for our house through binoculars. The water was still high and all I could pick out was the roof.”
Brother Glenn was not aware of the flood until late that night on his way home. When he did find out about it he drove straight home and met his family.
“It’s a disastrous thing to happen, of course,” said Brother Glenn, “but overall I think we’re going to see more benefit than harm out of it.
“The inactive members and the nonmembers, people who have not been out to church in years, are suddenly realizing what the Church can mean to them. I think the benefits will far outweigh a lot of the losses we have had here. Sure, we’ve had losses of life, but not very many. What would have happened if this flood had come during the night or during the first big winter blizzard when the roads would have been blocked and no one could have come in to help?”
The opportunity for good that can come from the flood was voiced by Elder Ezra Taft Benson, president of the Council of the Twelve, who toured the stricken area by helicopter and jeep some ten days after the dam broke. After visiting with the Saints as they embarked upon the massive clean-up project, President Benson told priesthood leaders, “I’m a better man for having been with you today and for having witnessed how beautifully you have responded to this disaster. This is probably the worst disaster that I have seen in the United States and it parallels what I saw in Germany immediately after the Second World War.
“I want you to know, and I promise you in the name of the Lord, that good will come from this disaster. I don’t know how, but I am sure that this is true.”
President Benson said, “Perhaps I shouldn’t say it, but you seem to be almost happy. I can’t believe what a wonderful spirit exists among the people. This disaster couldn’t have come to a better people, more ably equipped to meet the problem.”