Today is National Dam Safety day, because on this day in 1889 Johnstown, PA South Fork Dam failed. It flooded the town of Johnstown killing over 2000 people. This was by far the worst dam failure in US history as far as life lost.
As someone who studies dam failures, one of the first questions you get, and one I always have when studying a dam failure is, how many people died? We are all naturally curious. It gives us a way to judge how significant a failure was. Yet, studying dam failures you quickly learn that the question is always a lot less cut and dry than you think.
In large floods many bodies are washed away and never recovered, making a final life loss count very hard. Many dams fail during large rain events. If someone dies in a flood, would they have died anyways or is it the dam? But one of the hardest things to estimate is lives that were lost indirectly. What do I mean by that? Many think in a dam failure the cause of death would be obvious, drowning. But you would be incorrect.
The largest dam failure in history, as far as life loss is Banquio Dam in 1975, where the life loss estimate is over 100,000. Most of the people died, not from drowning but exposure. After the dam failed, millions were left cold, wet and homeless, not only that roads to the towns affected were all washed out, by the time sufficient aid arrived, ten of thousands had died from exposure.
But at times the deaths can be even less intuitive, and it is those I want to talk about. I have spent a significant amount of time studying the failure of Teton Dam. It failed on June 5, 1976 flooding the towns of Wilford, Sugar City and Rexburg in south eastern Idaho. Luckily, it didn’t fail on a dark and stormy night as is all too common in dam failures. Rather it was on a sunny Saturday afternoon, while the warning could have been sooner, it was soon enough to save many lives. 11 people passed away, but as in most failures many were not directly from flooding.
In Teton only 6 were from drowning. The other five?
Mary Gillette at 94 was the oldest woman in the small town of Teton. Teton actually sat just up from the river valley. The town would not be flooded at all but this was before the days of 2 dimensional flood modeling and most people assumed the town would flood. In fact, it was the first town to get the evacuation warning. Mary had been bed ridden for some time, she was ill prepared to evacuate, but at the time evacuation seemed to be the only option. The next day she would pass from exertion.
As the warning passed through town most people were gathering at Ricks College that sat on a hill in Rexburg. One area that for sure needed to be evacuated was also in Rexburg a small trailer park that sat down near the banks of the river. Both due to proximity and strength of structure, this place didn’t stand a chance when compared to the power of the water behind the dam. The warning hit one of the residents Dolly Pendrey, age 62, particularly hard. She lived alone and as she began to pack to exit the stress hit her. She had a massive heart attack. She made it to the hospital but died later that day.
Downstream of Rexburg was not scott free. The city of Idaho Falls was named because it is built around a beautiful falls on the Teton River. There was considerable fear that the town would flood due to the failure. John Heyrend, 72 lived close to the river and began to pack his car with his most trusted belongings. One trip back to his home he had a heart attack and passed away. His town would fare much better, due to great efforts of citizens doing a massive effort to sandbag around the river the town didn’t flood.
The day after the flood the water began to make its way downstream, leaving in its wake, mud, thick, slimy smelly black mud. Many who were evacuated to be with loved ones or at the college, slept an uneasy night wondering how their possessions, homes, pictures and other treasures survived. Stanley Peterson, 51, was fortunate, his home was not in the flood plain and he had spent the night warm and dry. However, his construction trailer where he stored the tools and equipment that he used to make a living as a contractor were all in the floodplain. He not only wondered if they had survived but worried that opportunists would take advantage of a bad situation and steal his valuable tools. He took his gun and jumped in his truck to make his way through the muddy streets back to his storage area. He didn’t get very far, as he went to leave his driveway he knocked his gun off the passenger seat, it went off, shot him in the femoral artery and bled out in his car.
The whole area began the process of recovery. Many people living in St. Anothony and Parker, towns nearby that had remained dry, housed family or friends that didn’t have homes. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was being organized and coming from all over the rest of Idaho and Utah, to help muck out homes. Federal government assistance was also coming, providing trailers to house the many middle class families who now understood homelessness in a new way. But in St. Anthony one woman was struggling with her own personal recovery. Karen Virgin, 29 had been working with councilors to overcome struggles in her life. She felt worthless and couldn’t shake the thought that God was not pleased with her. The dam failing was clear evidence that God was punishing the people around her for her actions. As she struggled with these inner demons she decided to end her life, and shot herself on June 10, 1976. She is the last life that was documented as being associated with the Teton Dam.
Disasters are named that for a reason. And often the indirect damage can be as significant as the direct costs. We are currently in the grips of another disaster. The final death toll connected to COVID-19 will be very difficult to compute. There will be deaths that are COVID that are thought to be something else, and deaths that are counted as COVID that are something else. There will also be many indirect deaths. There will be those that die due to stress at this time, just like those that died at the time of Teton Dam. And there will also be those in the midst of fighting other demands and due to the added pressures caused by this disease and economic stress will take their own lives.
The question we should ask ourselves is? What are we doing to better prepare ourselves and those around us, so that when the next disaster comes, and it will. We will be ready to handle the stress and anxiety that will come with it. In the world of dams, one of things that has changed since Teton is emergency action plans, plans that are practiced to prepare those who will react to potential dam incident or failure. As these drills and other items are better communicated it can help a community be prepared if the worst is to happen.
What emergency action plans do we have in our lives? Are we personally prepared for the potential disasters that might be headed our way? We should all do an after action report after this latest disaster. How prepared we were when COVID hit? Were we physically, mentally and emotionally prepared for what we went through?
If not, take the time to determine what you would have done differently, and then take the time so that you and those around you can be better prepared for whatever the next disaster that comes our way.
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