June 5, 1976 began as a typical day. It was a Saturday and I was scheduled to work a shift at the drugstore my dad managed in Ashton, Idaho. As such, I quickly prepared for the day and headed to work later that morning.
My duties at the store included stocking shelves, working in the old-fashioned soda fountain, and waiting on customers. It was good job for a fifteen-year-old, and I enjoyed it, most of the time. I worked with awesome ladies and the days passed quickly. This particular day proved to be one of the craziest any of us had ever faced.
That afternoon, people began flooding into the store. My dad had been listening to the radio while working in the pharmacy and he told us that the Teton Dam had collapsed and people were running scared, seeking higher ground. We were one of the few stores in the small town of Ashton, and it seemed that within minutes, we were wall to wall with people who were frantically buying up everything in sight. We sold out of first aid supplies, diapers, and anything else these people thought would come in handy. Most had fled immediately from their homes to find safety and only had what they had grabbed on the way out. I remember how frightened most of them appeared and we did our best to help them as they searched for basic supplies.
We were so swamped, it didn’t dawn on me for quite a while that we had relatives caught in the flood’s violent path. When the dam collapsed, a wall of water rushed toward the communities in its way. It was rumored that around 13,000 livestock perished—my horse was among those lost. An uncle had kept it pastured with his horses and I was later told that my appaloosa colt was forced through a barbwire fence. The thought of that haunted me for a long time.
Fourteen people died that day as a result of the flood. We should count our blessings that more didn’t perish in the disaster. Roads were washed away, homes were destroyed, telephone lines were down, and it would take an agonizing time for us to learn that our family who lived in the area had survived.
My paternal grandmother lived in a house in Roberts with one of my uncles. We were told that she had refused to evacuate, intent on saving her home. She opened the back door and the front door, then climbed onto the back of her couch and had a front row seat to the water that came rushing through. It entered through one door and exited the other on its way to merge with Snake River.
Another uncle’s home was destroyed as the flood water reached his place in Menan. He and his family were among those who later received a FEMA trailer to live in while a new home was built.
We were told that many people in the area headed to the higher ground of Ricks College when the flood took place. This small university became a safe haven where people gathered in the buildings for shelter. Food was prepared in the cafeteria to feed the 2000 people who had fled immediately to this location.
Nearly 10,000 people stood on the hills above Rexburg and watched as the flood waters tore their community to shreds. The water had picked up large logs from a nearby sawmill and the lumber quickly became battering rams that destroyed homes and businesses throughout the area. Some struck a local gas station and caught fire in the resulting explosion.
We came down as a family as soon as we were allowed in the area to help our relatives who had survived this tragedy. My father had recently purchased a four wheel drive Chevy Suburban and I know it helped us maneuver through road conditions that were nearly non-existent. It’s difficult to put into words the devastation I saw that day. My high school, North Fremont, often competed in sporting activities with the teams located in Sugar City. I had traveled to this small town quite often. I was stunned to see that it was totally annihilated. Miles of mud and debris littered what used to be a town. The smell was horrific. Combine swampy mud with dead animals and it’s a scent you don’t soon forget.
I later learned that the Idaho National Guard came into the area to clear roads, rebuild bridges, and to bury the dead animals. College students volunteered hours of service to aid those who had sought shelter at the small university in Rexburg. It was estimated that over 4,000 people were fed meals in the early days of the restoration effort. Volunteers from all over the state and nation came to help in the massive clean-up that took place.
As we drove through the area, I was amazed to see how random some of the destruction was. One house would be totally obliterated, while another would be standing as though nothing had happened. For the most part, though, the devastation was overwhelming.
When we reached our grandmother’s home, we carefully exited the Suburban. Mud was everywhere. I already mentioned the smell. We made our way inside the house where my grandmother and uncle were already shoveling out the mud that had been deposited throughout the small home. We worked with them for hours to try to salvage what could be saved. I didn’t think we would ever get all of that mud scrubbed clean, but eventually, it began to look like Grandma’s home again.
In the days, weeks, and years that followed, it was amazing to see how people worked together to restore all that was lost. So many unsung heroes stepped forward to help in any way that they could. It was an experience that I’ve never forgotten, and one that comes to mind each time an act of devastation takes place.
Recently, we’ve been inundated with disasters all over the world, including here in the United States. Hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding, earthquakes . . . the list goes on and on. Our hearts and prayers go out to anyone touched by these tragic events—and we all do our best to help in any way that we can.
It has been my observation that during stressful times like these, we often see the best in people as they strive to help those around them. We pull outside of ourselves to offer aid and solace to those who have lost so much. Selfishness and pride are left by the wayside as we roll up our sleeves to serve others. It’s sad that it sometimes takes a disaster for us to realize what is really important.
My suggestion at the moment—take the time to ponder the great blessings we enjoy. Look deep inside your heart and consider what it is you can do to help those who are suffering. It is often the simple things that mean the most. I heard of one young lady who traveled up to Idaho after she learned what had taken place following the collapse of the Teton Dam. She had thoughtfully brought clean water in containers to share with those who had nothing to drink. Something that simple brought relief to those who burned with thirst.
So on this day, push aside trivial concerns, roll up your sleeves, and see how much good you can accomplish for those who have lost everything. Not only will these acts of service go a long way toward helping others, but you’ll notice that a sense of peace will fill your heart as you serve. And in the end, isn't that what it's all about?!