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HORROR OF TETON TORRENT LEFT LASTING SCARS

SHARE HORROR OF TETON TORRENT LEFT LASTING SCARS

Arlene Mortensen's eyes moisten and her body visibly shudders as she recounts what it was like to live below the Teton Dam when it ruptured and unleashed a torrent of water on her farmhouse 20 years ago.

Fleeing in a pickup, Mortensen watched in horror as her house exploded upon impact with the water, which was rushing down upon her and family members at a height of 40 feet.Her escape was nothing short of miraculous.

It was a typical Saturday morning on June 5, 1976, in the heavily Mormon farming area northeast of Rexburg.

Mortensen was in her house with her youngest son, Kerry, who was 10 and playing inside.

The two oldest boys - Bret, 16, and Ronnie, 14 - were planting potatoes in the river bottom for neighbors. Her husband, Brent Romrell, a Forest Service employee, was at work.

At about 11:15 a.m., her brother-in-law pounded on the door. He had been listening to the radio. "The dam's broke. You've got to leave!" he urged.

About 85 billion gallons of water had been backed up miles behind the $55 million earthen dam, which stood 310 feet high and stretched 3,000 feet across. Despite warnings from environmentalists and geologists who had opposed its construction, it was built in the early 1970s to control flooding.

The clock on her wall stopped at five minutes to 12 when Utah Power's electricity to the area was shut down by the dam's collapse.

Mortensen called her parents, Annes and Maud Mortensen, who lived about five miles away, and appealed for them to help her evacuate. Meanwhile, she put her beauty shop equipment on tables.

Her parents and brother quickly arrived. Gates were left open for cattle, and belongings thrown into the trucks.

An adrenalin rush enabled the petite Mortensen to heft her son's bicycle overhead with one hand and into the truck bed.

Meanwhile, the thunderous roar was getting louder as the deluge approached. Water was coming over the tops of trees, as the family drove as fast as it could.

"The water was all but on us," Mortensen recalls. "As we drove off, the house exploded as if it was hit by a bomb."

Mortensen, her parents and brother were able to reach the top of Parker Hill with churning water lapping at their heels, out of harm's way, near where her parents lived.

From the hill, they could see across to the Myers Brothers feedlot, where they observed about 6,000 cattle stampeding.

The Mortensen family decided to venture back toward their homes to survey the damage, but could go only a few miles because roads were washed out and fence posts were down. One house had its large picture window knocked out and was full of hay bales.

The following morning, the family attended church services and people were wearing what they had on the day before: irrigation boots, jeans, whatever. Some were even barefoot.

Afterward, many returned to what was left of their property. The devastation was indescribable. An estimated 300 square miles in the region were flooded, and total property damage was put at $1 billion. Of about 154 homes in the Wilford area, only 24 survived.

"You can't imagine the feeling when we walked back in there Sunday," Mortensen says. "I had a big urge to go home, but there was no home."

All the trees in an apple orchard were gone. Thick topsoil was washed off the small acreage, exposing bedrock. Only part of her house's foundation could be seen.

Mortensen came across her neighbors' silverware and a Tupperware bowl with her name on the bottom. Near her parents' home, she discovered her cedar chest box, but its lid and contents were missing. Family photographs and birth certificates were gone.

The stress from losing virtually everything of meaning in their lives and dealing with bureaucratic red tape in the wake of the disaster also took its toll.

One family lost its home in a fire before the flood, rebuilt and lost it again to the flood. Some had to stay in temporary mobile homes infested with rodents and insects. Still, others on fixed incomes lost new homes because they couldn't afford to pay capital gains tax.

Mortensen said eight or nine local couples divorced within two or three years. She and her husband divorced 15 months afterward. She said the flood washed the mud out from under her marriage's carpet.