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.