Lessons learned from dam collapse 40 years later

Posted at 10:49 PM, Jun 05, 2016
and last updated 2016-06-06 00:49:49-04

Of the 23 federally declared disasters in Idaho history, the collapse of the Teton Dam in Eastern Idaho still stands as the only one that was man-made.

While the flood that followed could have been much worse, 11 people died, along with livestock, and dozens of homes were destroyed.

The Teton Dam broke on June 5, 1976. More than 150 homes were approximately six miles away.

It was a brand new development and had never before been filled with water. But, the first time it was filled with water, workers quickly clued in that something was wrong.

There was a leak, several of them.

"That leak kept getting bigger and bigger the bulldozer operators were working as fast as they to try to fill it up," said Rocky Barker, a newspaper reporter who covered the 10-year anniversary of the dam break. "Finally, at the last minute, the bulldozer operator had to jump off and run."

The wall of water ripped homes off of their foundations, instantly killing five people.

"It went right through the town of Rexburg and through many people's farms," Barker said.

The water finally came to rest in the American Falls Reservoir more than 100 miles away.

In all, 35,000 people were evacuated from their homes. Many never found a trace of their belongings.

As a result, the federal government paid out $322 million in claims over an 11-year period.

The water's wrath extended to state highways, damaging and destroying seven bridges. Even railroad ties and rails were lifted.

Energy and environmental reporter for the Idaho Statesman, Rocky Barker, moved to Eastern Idaho near the 10-year anniversary mark. It was one of his first assignments.

As Barker points out, the Teton Dam failure was a costly one. So much that to this day, it's not something that federal dollars are allocated for.

"It was clearly symbolic that this age of dam development was going to be over," Barker said.

Still, dams serve their purpose whether it be to help produce electricity, store water for irrigation purposes or for recreation.

Even though they too have a life expectancy, Barker says Idaho dams seem to be in good shape and are constantly being monitored.

For more insight on that tragic day, you can look for a book that just came out.

An Idaho Falls native, who now lives in Boise, wrote the book titled "A Dam Flood of Memories - Recollections of the Teton Dam Collapse." It is available in print form in bookstores and on Amazon and Etsy.