Over 188,000 people were directed and evacuated from several Northern California counties after erosion appeared on a spillway at the Oroville Dam.
The Oroville dam is the highest in the country, and has never overflowed in the 48 years it’s been around. Last week, the Department of Water Resources engineers discovered a crater in the main spillway according to the Sacramento Bee.
Since Sunday, the evacuation order has been lifted, but crews are still working hard to secure the spillway before the next winter storm arrives.
What will happen if they cannot repair the dam?
Californians can learn a lesson from a piece of eastern Idaho history.
In 1972, the Teton Dam began construction; in 1976 it was opened; on June 5, 1976 it failed and flooded two counties in Idaho: Fremont and Madison.
Neva Telford, an Idaho native and Ricks College alumna, said she remembers the dam being built and her father, who was in agriculture, talking a lot about it. Telford was 14 at the time and living in Sugar City.
“I was actually down in Utah when the flood happened, and the biggest thing I remember is we did not have contact with my parents,“ Telford said. “We did not even know if anybody was alive until about a week after the flood, and it was a phone call from a ham radio operator that got through to us to let us know the family was okay.” It took her a long time to get home because, “they were not letting individuals in there except those that were getting the power back on at the time.”
Jaren Watson, a former BYU-Idaho professor who grew up in Idaho, said that after four years of construction, the filling of the reservoir had finally begun.
“On June 3, workers noticed two small springs flowing clear water on the downstream side of the dam. The springs were not deemed harmful. Two days later the dam failed,” Watson said in his essay titled Of the Drowned.
For a couple days before the failure, “there was a man with the radio who went up everyday to give individuals a day-by-day account of what was going on,” Telford said. “He happened to be up there when the dam collapsed and was really the warning sign for everyone to get out below the dam.”
Telford said the hardest challenge for her family was they didn’t have cell phones for a way to communicate immediately.
The family made its way to the Manwaring Center, which had been set up by the Church as a shelter.
“No one thought that the waters would be as deep as they were,” Telford said. “We were lucky in that our home did not float away as many of our neighbors’ did.” Telford said her grandfather had built the home entirely of cinderblock. She lives in the same home today with her husband.
Her father accomplished all that he could in means of saving the animals on their farm, but could not save everything.
“While only 11 people were killed, 18,000 livestock died in the flood. Reports came of finding drowned animals in the unlikeliest places,” Watson said.
Telford’s cousins came to help muck out the family’s basement because it was full of mud and silt. “They found fish down there, but the worst thing was a dead cow that they had to actually cut into pieces to get out from the basement.”
It has been over 40 years since the dam disaster. Rexburg has experienced other flash floods, including some that took place in the summers of 2014 and 2015. The dam however, was never rebuilt.