“After One Flood—Another of Faith, Hope, and Good Hard Work,” Ensign, Sept. 1976, 91–95
REXBURG, Idaho—It was rodeo time, and the wildly kicking bull leaped out of the chute and quickly unseated the rider on its back. The man regained his breath, stood up, and walked back to the chute to try again.
The rodeo rider seemed like a symbol of the people here. Badly shaken when on June 5 the Teton Dam burst and tons of water destroyed their homes, farms, and businesses, they have picked themselves up, ready to begin all over again.
The rodeo, part of the nation’s 200th birthday celebration, took place one month to the day after the dam broke. It was held in Rigby because the Rexburg rodeo grounds had been destroyed by the flood. The cowboys paid an extra fee to ride and accepted lower prize money so that flood victims from the surrounding area could attend free of charge. Other spectators donated funds toward rebuilding the Rexburg rodeo grounds.
The rodeo was preceded by a parade around the debris-strewn streets of Rexburg where the local citizens were joined by former residents of Sugar City, Wilford, St. Anthony, and other nearby communities stricken by the flood.
Even though there were some floats “on loan” from flood-free cities, the parade lacked some of the glamour and glitter that had originally been planned for the celebrations. But the enthusiasm of the participants more than compensated. Many local floats were created on the morning of the parade and were little more than flatbed trucks embellished with handpainted signs and carrying flag-waving children. One such entry from the nearby farming community of Salem proudly proclaimed its children as “Salem’s crop of ’76.”
Another float parodied the plight of Brother Verl Bird and his father-in-law Leon Barron, who had survived the flood perched atop a child’s swing set for seven hours.
The parade and other bicentennial activities almost didn’t happen. Plans had been laid before the flood for elaborate festivities, but because of the destruction from the floodwaters and the huge task of cleaning up and rebuilding, the events were cancelled. But neither the spirit of the people nor the spirit of ’76 could be suppressed.
“We couldn’t see letting the day go by without a parade,” said Clyde Anderson, chairman of the bicentennial committee. “The community needed the morale boost of a parade, and we wanted to show that, although the people around here had lost practically everything they owned, we were still proud to be Americans and still proud of our heritage.”
The festivities concluded with a fireworks display, for which funds were collected by John Ray, one of the initiators of the day’s activities. “I’ve raised a lot of funds over the years,” he said, “but I think this was the smoothest project. Yet it wasn’t easy to do. We raised the money for the fireworks from the downtown businessmen. I’d walk into some of their stores and they’d be standing in mud and you’d just wonder what on earth they could contribute. But they came through and gave whatever they could. I think everyone realized that this was going to be a special occasion. Not only was it our nation’s bicentennial, but also it was an event that our people needed.”
On the actual bicentennial day, Sunday, July 4, the Saints went to their first fast and testimony meeting since the flood hit. Many gave thanks that their lives and the lives of their loved ones were spared in the great destruction. Others gave thanks for priesthood leadership that had played and continues to play such an important role in the rebuilding. And frequently the Saints gave thanks for the assistance they have been receiving through the Church Welfare program and from Church members in Idaho and surrounding states.
Volunteer help in the area has exceeded all expectations. Buses carrying 500 to 600 volunteers arrive each day in the stricken area to assist in the cleanup operation. The volunteers, who bring their own food and water, as well as shovels, brooms, buckets, and mops—and enthusiasm—are gathered through their home wards and stakes and assigned to help in specific wards here.
“I estimate that by the first week in July we had passed the half-million mark in donated man-hours,” reports Idaho Falls South Stake President Harold Hillam, who has been liaison between the stricken area and the volunteer effort. “That figure would not include the many thousands of hours when we have had equipment donated along with the operators and maintenance crews. The equipment has included tractors, backhoes, front-end loaders, trucks, cranes—whatever has been needed has been donated.”
As the basic cleanup work has moved forward, technicians have been needed to inspect homes for safety before the Saints move back in. Again, the response has been heartwarming. A week before the bicentennial celebrations, the call went out for volunteer electricians. President Hillam said he expected about one hundred electricians at the most. Five hundred arrived.
“One of the areas that we are most concerned about is getting electrical power back into the homes, and so these volunteers, and those who have followed them, have been checking wiring and other basic needs so that we can have the power connected.
The next step, now underway, is to inspect home furnaces, and furnacemen and sheetmetal workers have been volunteering their services.
Other help has been forthcoming from government agencies and other organizations, all of which meet each morning with priesthood leaders and ministers of other denominations to correlate the overall relief effort.
The Saints were urged to keep the Sabbath and to refrain from their regular cleanup activities. Some of the federal workers were not quite used to the idea of not working on Sunday, according to Keith Walker, Madison County commissioner and bishop of the Rexburg 8th Ward. “They resisted at first, but now they all look forward to the Sabbath.”
What is the reaction of the local Saints to the aid that they are receiving? In a letter to the Ensign, Sister Pat Hepworth of Rexburg wrote:
“A wonderful thing has happened here lately. We have been able to see the love of the gospel in action, and we have been blessed by its impact. I want to thank the thousands of Saints who have come here and worked so hard to help us clean up.
“Every morning countless buses and cars, packed with enthusiastic helpers, pull into town. As I see this my heart swells and the tears flow. Here are people who are truly showing their love by sacrificing their time in order to help their brothers and sisters in need. It seems to me that this is what the gospel is all about.”
Sister Hepworth continues:
“One of our leaders has said that this is just one big family reunion. It is true. As we work together we appreciate and love each other even more.
“The Teton Dam disaster has been a tragedy, but spiritually it has been a feast. The term Latter-day Saint has new meaning for me now.”
How do the volunteers react to what they see?
Sister Shirley Farnsworth Berlin of the Ogden 30th Ward, Ogden Utah East Stake, was in one of three busloads of volunteers that left Ogden at 4:00 A.M. for Rexburg. At Idaho Falls their caravan was joined by two other buses carrying volunteers. After a five-hour ride, their casual conversation and laughter ceased as the buses drew into Rexburg and the awestruck passengers saw the devastation around them.
Sister Berlin recalls, “We saw that the human spirit has great recuperative powers, and that people have always been able to find humor in even the most desolate of circumstances. A sign had been erected over a wrecked garage that read, ‘Garage for sail,’ while over the shambles of a former hamburger stand in Rexburg a sign proclaimed ‘World Famous Wrecksburgers.’
“When our bus pulled into the parking lot of the Rexburg Idaho North Stake, we were asked if there were any specialists aboard, such as electricians, plumbers, sheetrock workers, and carpenters. The remainder of us were assigned in twos and threes to help in various homes.
“One lady we were helping was wearing herself out trying to keep up with the volunteers. Like most of the local citizens, she felt that she had to keep going or the volunteers would wonder why she was taking it easy while they were doing the work. We told her to sit down and rest and just tell us what she wanted us to do. She did—but only for a while.
“Even before the relief agencies came in to help, much was accomplished through priesthood channels. Priesthood quorums set to work organizing the disaster-stunned people to begin the gigantic task of recovery. Now, as Saints and other volunteers have come from outside to help, a great work has been done. One Red Cross authority commented with astonishment that more had been accomplished in two weeks than is generally done in three months elsewhere.
“Because of the leadership and the support that they are getting, the people in the stricken areas seem to be remarkably optimistic about their future.”
Sister Berlin said that when she asked one young woman how she could keep going in the face of so much work to do on her flood-ravaged house, the woman answered, “Why, it’s my home!”
Those volunteers who worked with the Saints and their nonmember neighbors in Rexburg and the surrounding communities came away with renewed insights concerning life’s true values.
Blaine Downs of the Thirty-first Ward, Ogden Utah Stake, said: “I’m thankful for the welfare program of the Church, and for the opportunity to see it put into action with the love that comes to the one who gives without asking for something in return. I’m far more blessed by sharing the courage and love of the people who, in many cases, lost everything. I now have a better understanding of the concept of serving our brothers and sisters.”
Sister Diana Wilhelmsen of the Forty-fourth Ward, Mt. Ogden Utah Stake, said: “As I looked at the stereos, pianos, and televisions that were inundated by the flood, I thought of the scripture, ‘Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt’ (Matt. 6:19); and then I thought about my small children at home and their eternal spirits, and I knew that here was the heavenly treasure that the Lord counsels us to seek.”
Another volunteer worker spoke of a family who had been building their home for more than twenty years so that it would be comfortable for their married children and grandchildren when they came to visit. “They had worked many years to make their large basement a fun, comfortable place for family get-togethers. Today, We helped them tear it apart—the walls, the ceilings, the floors—everything was ruined. It was very sad. But President Spencer W. Kimball had lifted their spirits when he visited here and told the Saints not to place their values on material possessions.”
Apart from the volunteers, the Church itself moved in to help by providing food, clothing, and other supplies for the flood victims. Blair D. Pincock, a high councilor in the Ricks College Second Stake, his wife, Noreen, and their three daughters were among the many recipients of Church aid.
“We feel that the Church has supplied us with everything that we have needed,” said Brother Pincock. “Sometimes,” added Sister Pincock, “we don’t even feel that we lost anything, because the Church has done so much for us.”
Sister Pincock, who is Relief Society president in the Sugar City First Ward, said that when she and her family visited Deseret Industries to purchase needed clothing, they found a dress that she had made and donated some time earlier.
Garrett Case, manager of the Ricks College Bookstore and a high priests group leader in the Rexburg 2nd Ward, said that he “appreciated the fact that we had our family, even though our home was badly damaged.” He, his wife, and their eight children anticipate moving back into their home in about three months. Meanwhile they have turned to the Church for supplies and are living in a Ricks College student residence, like many other Saints whose homes were destroyed or damaged so badly they could not be lived in for a while.
The event that impressed the Case family most was the visit of President Spencer W. Kimball one week after the flood. “Just to hear him speak gave us encouragement,” said Brother Case. “Without the Church, we would have been very discouraged.”
Brother Case said that their bishop has frequently called to visit and counsel with them, as has Mark G. Ricks, president of the Rexburg Idaho Stake. “I think President Ricks has been 150 percent stake president and about one percent farmer since the flood,” said Sister Case.
President Ricks, who has been heading up the Church’s relief operations as the area welfare services leader for Idaho, has expressed amazement at the attitude of the people, who set about cleaning up the day after the flood and who have been busy rebuilding their lives ever since. “The overall attitude,” he says, “is positive and very, very high.”
The spirit of the community “is thrilling to see,” exclaims Ray Rigby, a former state legislator and president of the Ricks College Third Stake. “People say that the pioneers came to this area and made it blossom like a rose,” he said. “Now we’re going to do it again.”