Wednesday, September 21, 2005

The Teton Dam disaster of 1976

Following is an excerpt from Chapter 8 of my first book, In God's Country: The Patriot Movement and the Pacific Northwest, which was published in 1999 by Washington State University Press (and is still available, I think, as an on-demand print).

I'm providing this excerpt as context for the above post concerning federal disasters.
The crusty old farmer who was my great-grandfather, David Neiwert, was alienated not only from my grandfather Alex, but from one of his younger daughters -- Dolly, his twelfth child, a lively, brown-haired girl who fell in love with a man nine years her senior, Parney Pendrey, in 1931, when she was 17. The old man absolutely disapproved of the match: Parney was a mere carpenter and he sure as hell wasn’t even German, let alone Pentacostalist (he was English!). So the two eloped, and David Neiwert, the man who had once commanded a cannon brigade but found he could not command his own children, disowned Dolly and did not speak with her again for many years.

Perhaps this is why Dolly and Parney were among the few relatives on Alex's side of the family I ever met when I was growing up: they too were familial outcasts of sorts. However, I suspect that the matter of proximity had more to do with it. Dolly and Parney lived in Rexburg, which is a mere 45 minutes' drive from my hometown of Idaho Falls. It was easy to drop in and see them, and they to see us. Sometimes we just had barbecues in the back yard, other times we went on picnicking trips. I don’t think I ever knew anyone with as naturally sweet and unassuming, but firmly down-to-earth, a personality as my great-aunt Dolly. And Parney was a prize human being too -- quiet and modest but well-grounded, not to mention a terrific carpenter.

The Pendreys lived in one of the first pink houses I can remember seeing -- a little one-story place just a block or so off Rexburg's main thoroughfare. Parney bought it in 1950 when it was a cheap little dump of a house, gutted it, restructured its foundation, and spent the next year rebuilding it just to Dolly's specifications, including all the cabinetry and the basement storage areas and even a cedar-lined upstairs closet. It contained some of the finest wood craftsmanship I ever saw -- all tongued and grooved and perfectly fitted. Out back was the big long garage Parney had built himself, which doubled as Parney's woodworking shop. It was full of tools, the shapes and varieties of which I had never seen before. I always thought it was peculiar that the two of them chose to live in Rexburg, the home of LDS-run Ricks College, where the population is literally more than 90 percent Mormon, the Pendreys falling into the other ten (more like five) percent. They always said they didn't mind the Mormons much, because they generally made good neighbors. And the Pendreys were more or less used to sticking to themselves, though I think it must have been rough for their son and only child, Charlie, to grow up in an environment where, as I knew all too well, Mormon children could be especially cruel in the way of excluding and tormenting their "Gentile" playmates.

As I grew older it seemed we saw less of Dolly and Parney, though that was probably a product of my teenage pursuits, which hardly were ever directed toward Rexburg. By 1976, I had gone off north to Moscow to attend college, but still returned to Idaho Falls to spend the summer at home with my parents while I worked summer jobs for my tuition. My first week home, I got a welder's job at Mel Brown Co., putting together farm machinery.

Shortly thereafter Mom, my sister Becky and I drove up to Rexburg to visit Dolly and Parney. Dolly had fallen ill that spring with an enlarged heart and was confined to her bed. The doctors told Parney she probably would not live much longer, but she was a strong woman and we all held out hope for her. Still, it was a little shocking, seeing her in bed that afternoon, a mere shadow of the woman I remembered, a solid woman with a healthy build: now she was scarecrow-thin, scarcely recognizable. But she still had that famous smile that could light up a room, even if it was a little pale and wan. We spent an hour or so with her until it became plain we had tired her out. It was the last time I would see her alive.

She died -- was killed, really -- a couple of weeks later. June 5 was a Saturday, a sunny day off, and I remember that I had spent the morning making plans to put together a house-painting business, as I had done the summer before, so I could earn money on weekends and whatever off time I could put together. Dad was at work at the Idaho Falls tower. He called shortly after noon, and my mom answered.

"The Teton Dam has broken," he told her.

"You're kidding," she said.

"No. It broke about fifteen minutes ago. We're getting the emergency broadcasts right now."

The Teton was Idaho's most recently built dam -- in fact, it had just been finished and was being filled for the first time. It was an earth-fill structure located in a narrow canyon on the Teton River, just above Rexburg, where it flowed into the Snake River. Farmers and ranchers in the surrounding valleys had been begging for it to be built for several years, because about every seven to ten years, the Teton River flowed over its banks and flooded out everyone who lived in its path. So, in the finest tradition of pork-barrel politics, Idaho's congressional delegation as early as 1964 had approved funds for its construction, and the contract went to Idaho's largest employer, construction giant Morrison-Knudsen. However, it quickly became embroiled in controversy; fishermen claimed the dam would destroy one of the nation's best trout streams and set out through the courts to stop it. They only succeeded in delaying it; by 1974, construction was under way, and was finished in the fall of 1975.

The dam that June day in 1976 was still just eight months into what was to have been a two-year process of filling for the first time, yet it had already reached the three-quarters mark on an accelerated schedule. On June 3, workers noticed "wet spots" midway down the 307-foot-high earthen wall -- signs of water leaks on the canyon wall, though they were not considered unusual at first. On the morning of June 5, though, workers checking on them grew deeply concerned; they called back to their bosses and let them know the dam had sprung some major leaks, which were forming sinkholes in the dam wall. The men managed to fill two of the holes by shoveling dirt into them. But a third, much larger one suddenly appeared near the dam's right abutment.

One of the workmen drove a bulldozer down the dam's face and began pushing riprap material into the hole. But everything failed; suddenly, a whirlpool appeared in the upstream side of the dam, directly opposite the leak. More bulldozers atop the dam began pushing material into the whirlpool itself, in hopes that it would plug the hole, while the bulldozer on the dam's face kept shoving more dirt into the hole. The hole kept growing, and soon the bulldozer teetered on its edge. The operator jumped down and the men scrambled up the dam's face as the giant machine too was devoured by the hole. The hole became a pit, then a bank of crumbling dirt, a maw that now reached to the dam's crest. Suddenly, it all gave way, and with a roar the 288,250 acre-feet of water behind it came pouring forth with a vengeance, throwing first a cascade of dust high into the air before it, and then churning out a brown cauldron into the valley below. The dam had become a canyon wall, a gap through which flowed a gigantic, destructive torrent.

All any of us in Idaho Falls knew at the time was that the dam had broken. Idaho Falls wasn't in the immediate path of the floodwaters, but it was obvious that the Snake would flood over with that much water added to its steady flow, and the river passed through the city's heart. Our home was well away from the river, so we were in no danger. Our immediate concern was for Dolly and Parney: Rexburg lay directly in the flood's path, and their home, located in the flat river plain of the city's downtown district, was certain to be hit hard.

Dolly and Parney’s son, Charlie, pulled in sometime that afternoon. He had driven up from Pocatello, where he now lived, but hadn't been allowed to get through to Rexburg. We decided to make our home a base of sorts; Charlie would stay with us until it was possible to get to Rexburg. We hoped Parney would call us if he was able to get to safety. The local TV stations began steady news broadcasts, keeping us updated as the flood moved down the valley and into Rexburg.

Some cameras were stationed on the hill above the town on the Ricks College campus, and from the rooftops of a dormitory relayed the pictures we all dreaded seeing. First came a wall of water about six feet high and as wide across as you could see the town. Soon the entire downtown was underwater. Houses began floating away. One big white two-story structure began floating down main street, twisting slowly in the current, until it struck another building and lodged itself there. Trees were everywhere in the water, their limbs and roots sticking out above the surface, and you could see cattle trying to swim through the torrent too. We watched the images coming across our screens with amazement and horror, and prayed that Parney and Dolly had gotten to safety.

Late that afternoon Parney called. Yes, he said, they had reached high ground in plenty of time. He had loaded Dolly into the back of their pickup hurriedly and driven up the hill to a friend's home. We all were relieved. Mom began making arrangements to drive up to Rexburg the next day and retrieve them, obtaining permits from the sheriff's office and making a bed in the back of our Travelall for Dolly. Dad, as a federal emergency employee, would have to go to work while Charlie and Mom and I drove up to Rexburg.

The next morning we hit the highway early. There was a roadblock about ten miles outside of Rexburg, where our permits let us through. A mile or so later, we suddenly came upon the flood's path: the pavement was covered with mud, as was everything in sight. Water stood in the barrow pits, practically up to the road’s edge. The elevated railroad bed next to the road was washed away in large chunks, leaving skeletal rails suspended in the air over mudholes and puddles.

And everywhere, cows. Dead cows, randomly scattered across the farmlands and in barrow pits and wherever the flood deemed fit to deposit them, legs splayed straight out, often straight into the sky. A few of them were already beginning to bloat and swell in the southern Idaho sun.

Rexburg looked like one of those end-of-the-world movies: houses knocked askew, some twisted sideways into the middle of the street. Trees that had floated downstream with the flood had rammed into a few of them, and I remember one house in particular had a tree driven through it like an arrow. Midway through town, the nose of a school bus was perched up in a tree, stuck there by the flood. The sign that had been a town landmark -- a drive-in joint's big neon creation that announced: "Home of the Famous Rexburgers" -- had collapsed in a heap. A muddy water line that marked the flood's crest -- about six feet high -- was on every building, except those that had been destroyed.

Sure enough, Parney's sturdily built home was still standing when we pulled up, and Parney’s pickup was in the driveway. Parney was standing in the drive, leaning on a shovel and talking to a neighbor. Charlie jumped out to meet him. We were all glad to see him.

"How's Mom?" Charlie asked. Parney hung his head.

"She died last night," he said quietly. He and Charlie walked away together and talked quietly. We all felt tears starting to rise. We had all seen it coming, but it did not make the moment any easier. Later, he told us what had happened: Dolly had awakened in the middle of the night and asked for help going to the bathroom. Finished, she stood up and put her arms around Parney, and then collapsed. By the time the ambulance arrived, she had no pulse.

We simply looked about at the scene confronting us, and the madness of it flowed over the rest of our emotions like a second flood and swept them away. A cow lay bloating in the schoolyard across the street. Midway down the road, a huge house that had been swept off its foundations lay in the middle of the street, awash in the now-caking mud. A few doors down were houses that had been turned into kindling when logs from a nearby sawmill crashed into them en masse.

Inside Parney's house, the same chaos reigned. Everything was covered with wet mud -- about a foot's worth of silt covered all the floors. Pieces of straw and grass hung from the cabinet handles and the doorhandles. The furniture in the living room was a jumbled mess, although the TV, surprisingly, was OK: Parney had had the foresight to toss it onto the couch as he fled the house, and the couch had simply floated up with the floodwaters, circled a few times and come down with the TV still resting atop it. He also had thrown Dolly's stereo on top of the bed, and it too had survived intact in similar fashion.

Not much else in the house had. Mud was inside every cabinet; a couple of them gushed out little mudflows when we opened them. And then there was the basement; it was simply full of muddy reeking water that reached the top step of the stairwell. Not far from Parney’s house and in line with the floodpath was a stockyard that was home to a large number of pigs, and the water in the basement had the distinct smell of having arrived there via their pen.

What all this meant, of course, was work, and lots of it, a job so big it was hard to know where to start. In some ways, it was a relief, for Parney especially, because it meant there was something to do, to throw ourselves into, that let us feel like we had to shelve our sorrow. And so, for the next few days, that is what we did.

In truth, we didn't know then whether the house would even be salvageable. Many of the houses in the neighborhood had been utterly destroyed -- some swept off their foundations, others shattered by the water or the trees it swept along -- and federal disaster relief funds were already being quickly promised for the victims. But we started to dig in and clear the place out, because it seemed likely the old house would pass muster when the federal inspectors came around to pass judgment on it (an assessment that eventually proved correct). First came the silt on the upstairs level: a thick, clayey goo that came up in heavy clumps. All the furniture, most of it ruined, went out on the front lawn. Then there were the cabinets in the kitchen; the top shelves were untouched, but everything beneath them was a muddy jumble of broken glass and warped boxes. They, too, reeked of pig shit.

The basement, of course, was the worst and biggest project. The muddy water level subsided only about a stair’s worth before it became obvious it would never drain, and we were told that no pumps were available that could handle this kind of goo. So we started hauling it out bucket by bucket, dumping the buckets into wheelbarrows that we then hauled out and dumped into the street, from which we were told bulldozers would eventually come by and sweep the mud away. This process took several days. At the end, I was certain my arms were going to fall off from hauling too many buckets of mud up too many flights of stairs.

In the meantime, the floodwaters had continued down the river beds like a gigantic teardrop, bearing a five-foot-high wall of water down the Snake River and sending its normally even-keeled levels well above their banks. In Idaho Falls, sandbaggers who had gone to work with plenty of warning managed to keep the flood away from the businesses that lined the river, though they had to excavate a giant canal at one end of the city’s main bridge across the river on Broadway, in order to save the bridge itself from being washed away in the torrent. In Shelley and Blackfoot to the south, the floodwaters took out a few more homes and farmhouses and flooded a business district before it finally petered out when it hit the vast open plains of the American Falls Reservoir.

In the end, the flood had caused about $400 million in property damage and caused the loss of fourteen lives. One of those was Dolly Pendrey. Others included a couple of fishermen who had been just downstream of the dam when it collapsed, though one such angler survived by hanging onto a tree and riding it downstream. One of the victims was a suicide: a farmer who shot himself in the head after walking around his devastated farm and seeing his entire family acreage transformed from fine arable soil, famous for growing marvelous potatoes, into a vast plain of untillable river silt.

Most people, though, chose simply to go to work to reclaim their lives. Certainly, that was the case at Parney's house: Dolly's funeral was Wednesday, and we took time out to say our farewells. But then it was back to work. Charlie and Parney stayed with us, and made the drive each day to Rexburg to work on the home. That next weekend, I finally met one of Alex's brothers: August Neiwert, who still lived on the family farm in Burley, drove up with his son Gary and dug in to help us clean out the basement. By Sunday we had gotten the mud down to knee level, which enabled Charlie to find the drain. We cleared it out, put a screen around it to hold back the heavy sediment, and cleared off even more of the mud in a few hours than we had in a week. Now all we were left with was a foot-thick layer of heavy silt. That took another couple of days to clear out.

We also found ourselves with a small army of other helpers: Mormon teenagers. They had been organized by the Church, pulling in members from Utah congregations and elsewhere in Idaho, then busing them out to Rexburg and everywhere the flood had struck. They were cheerful helpers and hard workers, and we appreciated them. If we ever harbored any resentment of Mormons in our hearts over the years -- and most of us did -- it vanished on that day. Not only did they manage to clear out all the silt from the yard, but they also hauled out the majority of the mud from Parney’s garage/workshop, carefully sifting his tools from the silt as they went.

We did, in fact, rely on the generosity of Parney's Mormon neighbors a great deal. We ate most of our lunches at the Ricks College cafeteria, where another army of volunteers kept a cafeteria going steadily to feed flood victims. Occasionally we ate dinners there as well. It was easy to feel fortunate in these circumstances. All you had to do was look around at the faces at other tables: pain and misery and despair written on the faces of people who had literally lost everything. Some were preoccupied with their large Mormon families of five or six squealing children, all wearing the same clothes they’d had on for two weeks. Others were simply mud-caked, dog-tired and downtrodden. And through all this gathering, there smoldered a quiet, rising anger at the culprit for this tragedy: the government. Not just the Bureau of Reclamation, which had built the dam, but the whole damned -- in Rexburg, darned -- system.

There was no small irony in this, of course, considering that these same people were the folks who had applied the political pressure that had built the dam. They knew that, too, but it only deepened their anger. After all, they had trusted the government, believed in it, had no qualms about whether the job would be done right. And they had been tragically betrayed. Most of them would find it hard to ever trust a government official again.

During the tedious hours we spent cleaning Parney’s house, I contemplated those faces at the cafeteria and the feelings that lurked behind them, and came to understand these feelings well. That summer, I too had come to hate the Government: not any specific agency, but simply the concept of it, the fact of its massive bureaucratic existence. I hated it for its venal stupidity -- the incompetence that feeds its arrogance and vice versa, like a stupid frantic dog chasing its tail. I learned to hate its obsession with blind adherence to the status quo and adherence to its rules, the way its minions assumed the mantle of power as something outside the communities they are supposed to serve, so that they are somehow above those communities and their well-being. It is a stupidity that, through a blinkered, one-size-fits-all approach, thrusts disasters large and small on its victims, from collapsing dams to monolithic wetlands regulations, with little regard for the consequences. It does not surprise me that, eventually, some of these victims come to regard the stupidity as evil, and from there launch themselves into the abyss.

Parney, however, never did that. Within a few weeks we had managed to strip out all the mud and even most of the smell; all the sheetrock in the house had to be ripped out and replaced, and some of the flooring too, so we stripped it down and then let it sit open and bare for a week or so in the summer heat. Eventually it was back in good enough shape that Parney was able to move back in. Our lives gradually returned to a semblance of normalcy. I went back to college that fall. Parney settled back into his quiet life in Rexburg, made even quieter now by his solitude. Everywhere in Madison County, people put their lives back together, helped especially by the mass infusion of federal funds to help them get back on their feet.

Despite the aid, the bitterness and smoldering anger that I witnessed those afternoons in the relief-center cafeteria lingered on, especially after a congressional investigation of the dam's failure that fall and the subsequent hearings the summer of 1977. The conclusion: Teton Dam failed because it was not built properly for its circumstances. It was situated on a canyon wall that featured porous rock, which meant the water backing up behind it would actually flow through the rock and around the dam itself, which of course posed a danger to any earthen structure that could erode easily. This was not an unusual situation; most such dams feature a "key trench" at the point of contact with these porous walls which actually seals the water out and away from the dam's central structure.

Unfortunately, these canyon walls were so steep that, when combined with the rapid filling process, they created stress fractures in the key trench which allowed the water to leak through. The fracturing phenomenon had already been observed in the failure of a dam in France and was well known among engineers who stayed abreast of the state of the art. The Bureau of Reclamation’s engineers, however, were of an old-fashioned school that scoffed at such advances and ignored concerns about the canyon's steepness. Their bureaucratic incompetence, in essence, cost fourteen people their lives and created a flood of human misery.

For all this, I never heard Parney express any bitterness over what had happened to him; that would have poisoned his life, I think, and made his remaining years shorter. He collected a hefty sum from the government for Dolly's death, but he never talked about it and I don't think he pushed too hard on the amount, because to him it reeked of death, and besides, was something of an insult to the memory of his beloved Dolly. As it was, he stayed healthy and fit and alert for another twenty years. He died in December 1995 at the age of 90, after a brief three-day illness when his respiratory system gave out. Charlie said he was the same old Parney, sharp and witty, right up until the end, and he died quietly in his sleep.

I couldn't make it to his funeral, but I stopped through Rexburg a couple of months later, the afternoon after I interviewed Samuel Sherwood. The house was still pink, and showed no signs of once having suffered a flood’s ravages. I chatted for awhile with Parney's next-door neighbors, a couple my own age who had a young son they told me befriended Parney when they moved in a few years back. Parney was still an expert wood craftsman and made things for people he was close to, which he did for his young pal. I was glad to hear he still was making friends, as he always had, in his last years.

About a block and a half away from Parney's house, the county's historical society has put together a museum dedicated to the Teton Dam disaster. It's filled with memorabilia and photographs from the flood, and they show a film about the tragedy once an hour or so. It's kind of peculiar to have a whole museum dedicated to such an event, but then, the damaged lives and hard feelings it generated have remained here, just under the surface of the polite Mormon society, and the museum is one way they find expression.

There are other expressions of this anger. They are not quite so constructive.

Madison County, as I go on to describe, was a significant hotbed of far-right organizations and recruitment. But that's another story.

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