Top 50 Stories: 1976 - Teton Dam collapses

The deadly breach near Rexburg caused flooding miles down the Snake River

June 5, 2014 

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    To celebrate 150 years of producing this newspaper, we are reprinting one of our Top 50 stories each day through July 6. Then you can vote for your Top 10 stories, which will appear in our commemorative special section on July 26. Read more at Idaho Statesman.com/150years.

It was the closest thing Idaho has had to a tsunami.

Thirty-eight years ago today, on a sunny Saturday morning, the Teton Dam collapsed in Eastern Idaho, releasing a 15-foot wall of water that devastated the valley below. It killed 11 people and some 18,000 head of livestock. The flood was 8 miles wide in places. Hundreds of homes were lost; property damage was estimated at $2 billion.

The 305-foot high earthen dam had been completed the year before, primarily to provide irrigation water, and was filling for the first time.

I was one of the Idaho Statesman reporters sent to cover the tragedy. The most enduring memories are of towns such as Sugar City and Roberts, virtually erased; of evacuated families sleeping on floors in emergency shelters on high ground at Ricks College; of buildings swept away, disintegrated.

Then there were Merle and Anna Ballard. An elderly couple who lived in a mobile home in Roberts, the Ballards were $315 from paying off their mortgage. They lost everything.

A few years later, I went back and tried to find them. No one could even remember them. Like so much else that was there, it was as if they never existed.

Proposals to build a new dam have foundered. A 2006 Bureau of Reclamation study found little support for its purported benefits.

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