REXBURG, Idaho — It's been 25 years since the Teton Dam ruptured and unleashed a torrent of destruction and pandemonium on this small college town and surrounding farm communities, making its collapse one of the worst disasters in Idaho's history.

While the mud and debris have been mopped up for decades, the deluge has left an indelible mark on residents who remember that momentous day, June 5, 1976.

For them, life will never be the same.

On that calm, sunny Saturday, about 250,000 acre feet of water behind the $55 million earthen dam came roaring down the Teton River canyon east of here when the dam developed a leak in its base and then collapsed.

More than $1 billion in property damage was inflicted upon the Upper Snake River Valley when the high wall of water crashed into houses, farms and businesses, sweeping away an estimated 15,000 livestock and 100,000 acres of top soil.

About 4,000 houses, 250 businesses and 35 farms were destroyed by its onslaught. The deluge was six to eight miles wide and traveled up to 60 mph. An estimated 300 square miles in the region were flooded.

The dam stood 305 feet and spanned 3,200 feet after its construction was completed only eight months earlier. Ironically, its construction was begun in 1972 to control flooding and provide irrigation water to this agrarian region. It was in the process of filling at about 2.5 feet a day when the structure failed.

W. Keith Walker, 68, who chaired the Madison County Commission at the time, was cleaning out corrals, preparing to move 465 head of cattle to Henry's Lake when a son rushed up to him on a motorcycle to tell him the dam had failed.

Security blocked roads leading to the dam, sirens sounded in Rexburg and Sugar City and people went to Ricks College, a two-year institution run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The campus was on higher ground overlooking downtown Rexburg.

Walker was able to catch a plane that flew to the Teton Dam site.

"The dam was out before we got there. A chunk of dirt came out of the dam the size of a church house," he said. "When I saw it, there was so much dirt and debris in it that it looked brown."

The fact the dam collapsed shortly before noon helped minimize the death toll, Walker says. After sense of normalcy returned, it was learned that only 11 people died directly because of the devastation. Had the dam failed at night when most people sleep, the deaths could have reached into the thousands.

Utah Power dispatched half of its entire crew, or some 400 men from Utah and southeastern Idaho, to the region, including seven line crews. One thousand power poles and 200 miles of line had to be replaced. Before power was restored to six towns, about 70,000 hours of work were logged.

Eldon Hart, an 86-year-old flight instructor in Rexburg, lost three planes, three helicopters and five automobiles to the flood, which covered his two businesses — Aero Technicians and Hart Enterprises.

Hart estimates the deluge cost his firms nearly $2 million. He guesses he received an average 16 cents on the dollar from the federal government on his business losses.

His son, Lewis, also an aviator, saw the dam break from the air and people stranded in the middle of a barley field, surrounded by swirling water. It took him about six trips to rescue them and ferry them to St. Anthony, his father says. When his plane ran out of fuel, he was forced to land on a dry farm.

Lewis Hart parked his fuel trucks on a hill before the Teton Dam's wrath could sweep them away. He had just filled two 10,000-gallon underground fuel tanks, but the force of the flood screwed off their tops. The 20,000 gallons of fuel were flushed downstream, and the tanks filled with mud.

Terrell Arnold has been curator for the past three years at the Teton Flood Museum in the basement of the Mormon Tabernacle, built in 1911. The museum is replete with old photos, newspaper clippings and other memorabilia.

An item he likes to pull out for visitors is an old wallet lost the day of the flood. It was found with a $20 bill and credit cards in it last fall when someone was digging potatoes in a field.

Glen Pond, Utah Power's regional community manager, was a downtown Rexburg banker 25 years ago. He had just finished mowing his lawn when he heard the horrifying news. Today, Pond says, citizens still routinely discuss the flood, but there's been no talk of rebuilding the dam.

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There's also virtually no hint of the destruction that ripped through Rexburg or nearby communities 25 years ago when the dam collapsed. A flood line can be seen on an entrance wall at the museum, but Rexburg's streets are wide, clean and busy with traffic. Storefronts are restored. Debris is gone. Construction can be seen everywhere as the town of 17,000 prepares for Ricks College this fall to become a four-year university — BYU-Idaho.

"Some thought it would take maybe five years or longer to put things back together, but it was done in a year's time," Walker said. "After that first year, you really had to look hard to find scars or marks."

While it was difficult for residents to initially accept or understand, the flood's hardships compelled people to excel, he says. The army of psychologists sent to the area weren't needed — to the perplexity of some government officials, Walker remembers. Volunteers rose to the occasion.

"This proved no matter how bad things may look, you pick up the pieces and go on. The community came out better," Walker says. "One of the greatest lessons learned is how much can be accomplished when everyone's responsible and helping one another."

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