August 18, 2016 at 4:44 pm

The Teton Dam Collapse: An Essay on Modern Catastrophe – Part 3

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Read Parts 1 & 2 here.


Click on left arrow to advance photos in chronological order from right to left.


AFTERMATH

In the effort to understand the causes and origins of this monumental failure there were a number of conclusions arrived at by the various investigating committees. No final agreement was ever reached as to any single cause for the failure, but I think it obvious from the results of the various investigations that it was the unique confluence of factors that interacted cumulatively and pushed the system from relative stability to catastrophic instability. From the time of the first indication of a problem to the collapse was only about 5 hours. In his very useful reference on the failure of earth embankment dams Selected Case Histories of Dam Failures and Accidents Caused by Internal Erosion, author David Miedema presents 10 case histories of failure, including Teton Dam. In his summary of this event he presents the seven most likely mechanisms that may have initiated the failure. I won’t dwell on the technical details of the various failure mechanisms but Madiema sums up the general understanding that has emerged when he states

“While the exact cause of the failure is not known, it is commonly accepted that a concentrated flow of high pressure reservoir water passed through open cracks in the rock upstream of the key trench on the right abutment and eroded the very erodible silt fill material, which was then carried into large open cracks downstream of the key trench.”

The “very erodible silt fill material” is the aforementioned loess used for the core layer. The key trench referred to is, in this case, a large, roughly 70 foot deep slot excavated into the bedrock below both abutments that was supposed to act as an additional barrier to water penetration well below the mass of the dam proper.

As pointed out by F. Ross Peterson in The Teton Dam Disaster: Tragedy or Triumph? 95% of the people affected by the flood were Mormons whose presence in the Upper Snake River Valley goes back to the 1880s. In this semi-arid region the lifeblood of their farms and communities has always been water. Most Mormons in the area therefore favored construction of the dam. However, it was this shared heritage that dramatically lessened the severity of post-flood recovery efforts. Interestingly, as Peterson describes in the above referenced work, the “similar religious beliefs of the valley residents created an immediate folklore of premonitions, miracles and divine intervention.” This phenomenon is worth dwelling upon. Utah University and Rick’s College (now Brigham Young University) compiled a comprehensive record of over 400 oral accounts of flood survivors. In these accounts there were many stories of people having prophetic dreams, visions and premonitions of disaster. In many cases property and lives were saved because people had the sense of foreboding, or a sense of some impending tragedy in the days leading up to June 5 and were psychologically or even physically prepared.

In these accounts there were many stories of people having prophetic dreams, visions and premonitions of disaster. In many cases property and lives were saved because people had the sense of foreboding, or a sense of some impending tragedy in the days leading up to June 5 and were psychologically or even physically prepared.

It was appreciated by many that the timing of the dam break was fortuitous, occurring about noon on a Saturday. Had it occurred at night it would not have been discovered 5 hours before the collapse and instead of 14 lives lost there probably would have been thousands. As it was there was barely enough time to send out the alarm. Peterson remarks that because of their religious convictions many survivors and witnesses to the disaster believed there was a supernatural factor involved, and

“As they analyzed the hours before the flood, some felt they had been warned by a premonition. Others felt that miraculous events accompanied the flood. To many, the entire disaster became an intense spiritual experience.” Peterson goes to say that “All of these premonitions illustrate that numerous people felt that there had been a type of divine intervention on their behalf. The warnings of impending disaster or disruption came in a variety of ways, but the recipients, given time to contemplate the events of that week in June, were sure they had been warned.”

Peterson provides the quote of one survivor that he describes as conveying the general feeling among many survivors: “I feel the timing of the break was miraculous because if it had been in the winter or at night, we would have lost a lot more lives. If the whole total dam . . . had crumbled away, we wouldn’t have a community or people in it. They couldn’t have escaped. It would have come so fast and so deep. That’s where I feel the divine intervention is.”

I feel the timing of the break was miraculous because if it had been in the winter or at night, we would have lost a lot more lives. If the whole total dam . . . had crumbled away, we wouldn’t have a community or people in it. They couldn’t have escaped. It would have come so fast and so deep. That’s where I feel the divine intervention is.

Let it be noted that great disasters of the past, both ancient and recent, frequently have such occurrences as premonitions and forewarnings associated with them. However one chooses to interpret such phenomenon it is too prevalent to be dismissed. Eyewitnesses and survivors of great disasters and calamities quite often interpret the experience in religious and/or apocalyptic terms.

Peterson also relates stories printed in the local press that suggest another kind of unknown factor at work. The regional Logan Herald Journal reported on a particularly interesting event that occurred in the aftermath of the flood. Referring to a column by reporter Cleta Hansen, Peterson explains: “. . . when the flood waters receded, many people feared that the remaining ponds, pools, and stagnant water would become the breeding ground for mosquitos.” Health officials were rightly worried that this could provoke a serious health risk in the region on top of all the other devastation. However, as Peterson relates: “similar to what happened in pioneer Utah, thousands of sea gulls flew in from the southwest, settled on the water, gorged themselves with larvae, and the summer of 1976 was relatively mosquito-free.” Did someone send out a memo to this vast flock of seagulls that hundreds, perhaps a thousand miles away, a feast was awaiting them? We might justifiably wonder by what means this phenomenon was effected. The Mormons, as well as many locals, of course, attribute it to a miracle. I will only go so far as to acknowledge that Nature often works in mysterious ways.

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Perhaps the most significant consequence of the disaster was the humanitarian response. Within several weeks of the disaster and over the summer some 40,000 volunteers arrived to help with the recovery. Ross Peterson comments on this phenomenon: “Another difference about this disaster was the fantastic volunteer labor force that literally invaded the area immediately after the collapse of the dam. In an unprecedented manner, over forty thousand volunteers performed clean-up work. Friends, relatives, neighbors, coreligionists, and total strangers came into the valley and worked under the direction of federal, state, local, and church authorities.”  The people came from far and wide, from Idaho, Utah, Wyoming and Canada. Many were members of affiliated LDS churches. There were also many Mennonite and Hutterite volunteers as well as people who had no religious affiliation but who just felt the call to help.

The first task was “mucking out,” the cleaning up and disposal of several million tons of the slimy, putrid mud that blanketed the region in the aftermath, that filled houses and basements, roads and irrigation ditches. Peterson relates how the impact of the massive clean-up and rebuilding effort cannot be appreciated by those who did not witness its progress. In the first week after the disaster 20 thousand volunteers arrived. On June 19th alone more than 5000 more showed up. They brought an attitude of optimism and cheerfulness that lifted the morale of the destitute and displaced victims. Work which would have taken weeks otherwise was completed in a matter of days.

When the call went out for 150 electricians, 400 showed up. Peterson quotes one of the electricians whose response was typical. After being told that he would be reimbursed by the church, he replied, “I didn’t come up here to be reimbursed for anything. I’ve got my truck and my crew and anything that needs to be done we’ll do it, and we’ll donate it and be happy to do it.”

When the call went out for half a dozen front-end loaders Soda Springs responded by making up to 100 available. Peterson quotes one church leader who expresses the debt the flood victims owed to the volunteers, saying that they “literally lifted us up out of the mud and set us on our feet again . . . without them we never would have made it.” One woman survivor made a powerful and moving comment “I never wept a tear over the loss of our material things, but when I saw and felt the magnitude of the human heart, as it opened to our aid, I wept.”

Figure 37. Men, choose your weapons. Volunteers getting ready to go to work

Figure 37. Men, choose your weapons. Volunteers getting ready to go to work

Figure 38. People of all ages came to lend a hand

Figure 38. People of all ages came to lend a hand

Figure 39. Spontaneous cooperation in time of need.

Figure 39. Spontaneous cooperation in time of need.

A central creed of the LDS church is disaster preparedness. The efficiency of the family self-help and church operated welfare systems insured that almost no one went hungry. The presence of LDS owned Rick’s College in Rexburg with its dormitories and facilities insured that most of the displaced and homeless had shelter. As it was, the leaders of the church and the local government leaders were frequently the same people. The effectiveness of the locally managed and coordinated response left Federal agencies free to focus on restoring electrical power, and transportation and communication lines. General James Brooks who was Director of Disaster Services for Idaho, commented, “The church organization functioned marvelously under these kinds of conditions, and I’d have to say more effectively than most anything I’ve seen.”

The disaster that occurred was tragic enough in its own right. The floodwaters drowned some 80 miles of the Teton and Snake River valleys. But it could have been worse. A lot worse. The Teton River is a tributary to the Snake River. About 100 miles downstream from Teton Dam lay American Falls Reservoir along the Snake. This reservoir contains about a half cubic mile of water. In 1976 the dam retaining that reservoir was known to be severely deteriorated and in need of replacement. Officials rightfully feared that if a substantial volume of water rushing down the Teton River were to overwhelm American Falls reservoir, its old decrepit dam would probably fail, adding another half cubic mile of water to the flood. This augmented flood surge would then race down the Snake River Canyon about 30 miles until it reached Lake Walcott, held in by the Minidoka Dam.

This dam would then likely fail adding the water of Lake Walcott and swelling the flood even further. Between the Minidoka Dam and the confluence of the Snake River and the Columbia River lay 8 more dams with their reservoirs. Officials and engineers began to panic as they realized the potential for all of these dams to fail one after another like dominoes. But that’s not all: along the Columbia between the Snake River and Portland, Oregon, lay another 4 dams with large reservoirs which likely would have been overtopped. Had this worst case scenario occurred it possibly could have been one of the greatest disasters of modern times, no doubt the greatest disaster in American history. In desperation officials raced to open the outlet works of American Falls reservoir full bore in an effort to drain as much water as possible before the flood arrived. However, one of the same factors that contributed to the failure of Teton Dam in the first place now acted to mitigate the extreme disaster of multiple dam failures. This was the porosity of the rhyolite/basalt bedrock. By the time the flood surge reached American Falls it had substantially diminished in force and volume because much of the water had soaked into the highly permeable bedrock. American Falls reservoir was able to absorb the additional volume of water and an extreme calamity was averted. Two years later the dam at American Falls was replaced.

Figure 40. Teton Dam after failure, looking downstream. Note the obvious scouring along the lower section of the canyon wall, giving a clear indication of the depth of the flood. Source: Seed, H. Bolton & James Michael Duncan (1987) The Failure of Teton Dam: Engineering Geology, vol. 24, p. 178

Figure 40. Teton Dam after failure, looking downstream. Note the obvious scouring along the lower section of the canyon wall, giving a clear indication of the depth of the flood. Source: Seed, H. Bolton & James Michael Duncan (1987) The Failure of Teton Dam: Engineering Geology, vol. 24, p. 178

Thankfully, that worst case scenario did not materialize. However, had it done so it would have imitated a flood that swept down the Columbia to the Pacific Ocean at the end of the last ice age. A scenario of multiple dams failing one after another as they are overwhelmed by an ever increasing flood volume might at first seem too extreme to be realistic, but even such a flood as that would be miniscule when contrasted with some of Nature’s mighty floods of the past. The deluge that came through the Columbia at the end of the last ice age was one of the most massive floods ever documented to have occurred in the entire history of the Earth. The peak volume of flow through Wallula Gap, Washington was estimated by paleohydrologists to be on the order of 350 million cubic feet per second. A flow of such magnitude is nearly impossible to visualize, but for the sake of some kind of comprehension, consider this: a flood on this scale would utterly obliterate and wash away any major urban area in the world and leave nary a trace.

A flow of such magnitude is nearly impossible to visualize, but for the sake of some kind of comprehension, consider this: a flood on this scale would utterly obliterate and wash away any major urban area in the world and leave nary a trace.

 New York, London, Paris, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, a flood of 350 cubic feet per second would erase any of these cities as if they had never existed within a span of about one to two hours. Paleohydrologist Victor Baker, PhD. has estimated the flood current that swept through Spokane Valley in Washington State was on the order of 700 to 800 million cubic feet per second, or about twice as great!

What do we really know about the cause, or causes, of such inconceivably huge floods in the recent geological past?

What do we know about the extent to which human societies of the time, or, dare I say it, human civilization, was affected by gigantic floods, especially as we come to realize that the mega-flood phenomenon was global in extent?

The lessons learned from the study of modern cataclysms, even though these are diminutive by ancient standards, can nonetheless provide valuable insight toward understanding and identifying those mighty deluges and catastrophes of the past and deciphering their fingerprints in the modern landscape.
But what do we know about the process that led to the Teton Dam disaster? We have discussed some of the technical aspects, the engineering and geological factors leading to collapse, but there is the other dimension of failure that must be addressed: The human factor.
In his study Selected Case Histories of Dam Failures and Accidents Caused by Internal Erosion, civil engineer David Miedema discussed the issue of ultimate causes. He pointed out that “Geologic factors, design decisions, construction control, and human factors were all part of the story.” In regards to the “human factor” Miedema cites the conclusions of engineer James L. Sherad, whom I quoted above, who argued that there was one common denominator directly or indirectly associated with the all the various factors contributing to failure and that was what he called “the bureaucracy problem.”

In particular Sherard criticizes the decision to suspend grouting operations.

“The decision to abandon the gravity grouting was surprising. The gravity grouting was not a very conservative method of sealing the cracks but it was much better than doing nothing. I believe that there will be no strong argument with the opinion that it was completely unacceptable practice to stop the gravity grouting . . . I believe this blunder can only be explained as the long time result of bureaucratic restrictions on the USBR staff. The abandonment of the gravity grouting could only have been permitted because the individuals in the design group who would have known to insist on the continuation of the gravity grouting were separated from the decision.”

The effects of bureaucratic impediments to efficient and competent practices were not limited to decisions regarding grouting procedures but also encompassed restrictions upon engineer’s ability to study ongoing projects first hand in the field.

“Travel to sites for design engineers was considered generally unnecessary and was frowned upon. The responsible design engineer for major USBR dams frequently never visited the site, either in the design stage or during construction. At periodic fairly regular intervals, usually following federal elections, all ‘unnecessary travel by federal employees’ was banned by fiat from Washington. As a result, the designer was sheltered from problems and experience.”

Sherard points out that the agency suffered from “inbreeding” and was resistant to independent review and analysis by various specialists. In addition, there was a lack of cooperation between the construction supervision staff and the design group. It was believed that the resident engineer on the project should not need to consult with the design staff and that frequent consultation would reflect negatively on the resident engineer’s advancement.

He concludes by saying that “Decades of such bureaucratic restrictions and inbreeding led to the situation in which the Teton Dam was constructed according to a design which would have been considered unacceptable by independent specialists.”

This example should serve as a warning and a reminder to all those who advocate for the continued expansion of government and bureaucratic power at the expense of private initiatives that can be held accountable for their failures. The pre-eminent question becomes: How do we restore accountability to government? Thomas Jefferson undoubtedly had it right when he advocated for a government “rigorously frugal and simple.” Is such an ideal out of the question in the 21st century, or is there another way of conducting the business of our civilization than the continued centralization of political power?

Russ Brown was one of the original opponents of the Teton Dam project. He closely followed the events leading up to the failure and the post failure response by various entities and doesn’t mince words when it comes to assigning responsibility. His analysis of the situation needs to be pondered by anyone who desires a realistic assessment of the causes and consequences of this calamity. He penned some remarks for the website of Idaho Public Television in which he clarifies the political context that led to the disaster. He does not moderate his criticism of the forces responsible. The title of his missive is “The Teton Dam Disaster, A Product of Three Failures of Government Institutions.” His trenchant comments lay bare the core of mendacity, vested interests, and political machinations that reached their culmination in this tragic event.

“The roots of the Teton Dam project were greed and tradition. The greed of irrigation interests had been a tradition for almost three-quarters of a century; it was a type of socialism that was attractive to nominally conservative Western farmers. The opportunity to get Federal money for personal enrichment was always a sufficient reason to make the welfare state socially acceptable.”

“As ever, that lust for a handout was facilitated by elected officials at both the State and national level. Pork-barrel projects are the life-blood of politics; they serve the principal objective of almost all Western Senators and Congresspersons, i.e., getting re-elected. Pork has the added advantage of being bipartisan. With few exceptions, Republicans and Democrats cheerfully belly up to the trough. Environmental considerations are not even in last place when such projects are considered; they are out of sight.”

“The Bureau of Reclamation did everything that it could to serve the pork-barrel constituency. Project justifications were enhanced by overstated benefits and understated costs. In private industry, the Bureau’s practices would have been met with disbelief, occasional laughter, and indictments for fraud. In the industry of government, it produced nothing but happy faces and fat cats. Congressional passions were the Bureau’s commands. Questions were socially and politically unacceptable. . .”

“The matrix of deceit in the Teton project included inflated benefits for irrigation and flood control and a myriad of deflated or omitted costs. IRRIGATION: Benefits claimed for 37,000 acres–20,000 were already irrigated.”

“Benefits calculated by comparison to the worst drought years in the history of the area. (1931-1937) Although 70% of the cost of Phase I was allocated to irrigation, the irrigators would have paid less than 10% of the cost.”

These remarks are only part of his complete statement, which can be found here: http://idahoptv.org/outdoors/shows/bofr/teton/brown.html

The benefits of the project were exaggerated and the costs were deflated or omitted altogether. It is an all too familiar pattern. It is to be noted that here is one example among too many to count, of politics corrupting money. The socialist left has it exactly backwards, it is not money that corrupts politics, it is politics that corrupts money. The whole process of wealth centralization in the hands of government, that is, in the hands of politicians and bureaucrats, who then dole it back out to the States and the private sector with political agendas grafted on is the basis of most corruption in America to some degree or another. The Time Magazine article I quoted from above concludes with this paragraph:

“Whatever the investigations turn up, they will do little to ease the tragedy for thousands of farmers and townspeople. Even with help from Washington—and Idaho Governor Cecil Andrus says that “liability is clearly at the door of the Federal Government”—it will be years before the communities downstream from the ill-fated dam can completely recover from their losses.”

The fate of the people in the headwaters of the Teton River was taken out of their hands and placed in the hands of distant bureaucrats in Washington D.C. The people suffered mightily for this loss of autonomy. In spite of warnings from geologists about the problematic nature of the site, including the possibility of seismic activity, the Bureau of Reclamation proceeded in a manner that can only be described as reckless. Their report submitted to the newly created EPA in 1971 was 14 pages in length and made no mention of potential problems resulting from seismic activity or bedrock permeability. Approval for the project was given, funds were allocated and the decision to proceed was made before any test-well drilling was conducted and before excavation revealed the presence of fissures and fractures throughout the wall of the canyon. By the time the problems became apparent political momentum was already propelling the project forward.

As far as asking the critical questions, the ones that were considered socially or politically unacceptable in regards to the Teton Dam, one can’t help but think of the reaction to those who question the politics behind the global warming/climate change debate, where the customary tactic for the pro-global warming side of the debate is to label anyone who questions the so-called “consensus” of officially approved, big government climate science a climate change “denier,” as if such a thing actually existed somewhere out there in the real world. Then to make sure that any unacceptable questions or criticisms are further silenced, dismissed and ignored, the deceit of big tobacco company lawyers is regularly invoked with the intention of creating a stifling smokescreen that obscures and precludes any further discussion. The developments that have led to this unacceptable state of affairs had their precursor in the mind-set that led to the Teton Dam disaster. In both cases the process was, and is, dominated and directed by political agendas.

We cannot reverse the course of history. The dam failed, people suffered, and then picked up the pieces and moved on with their lives. Two generations have passed since that fateful day. Only the locals remember it now. The most valuable thing that we can do now is to learn from the experience. As a result of the failure of the dam a large flood of water was released across the landscape and it left a series of very distinct effects that are still apparent today. We also have a mass of data regarding peak discharge, the total volume of water released, the timing of the flood surge, the draining of the reservoir and the erosional and depositional effects upon the landscape. A careful consideration of the this disaster can, therefore, yield insight into a number of questions, most importantly into a deeper understanding of events of the past involving floods several orders of magnitude greater than the Teton flood and their effects upon human culture. Such knowledge would contribute significantly to our understanding of ancient history as well as providing a knowledge of history that may well prove crucial to the future of human civilization on this planet.

The effects of water erosion and deposition tend to be scale invariant, that is, the phenomenon associated with these processes, whether at a small scale in the hydrological laboratory or larger scale at the level of the landscape, display the same forms and patterns. By analogy to these patterns at the micro- and mesoscales we can comprehend and visualize patterns at the mega-scale that would ordinarily be beyond the range of perception without technological augmentation. It is these mega-scale forms and patterns that impart awareness and knowledge of extreme catastrophes manifesting on a planetary scale and of the implications of these events for understanding not only the progress of life on Earth but the progress of human civilization as well, both in the past and in times to come. What these patterns teach us is that this planet is exceptionally dynamic and undergoes two modes of change: that which we have experienced in modern times: the gradualistic, uniform pace of change slowly manifesting upon the global landscape as it constantly and steadily evolves in response to the relatively mild, protracted forces of nature operating under normal circumstances − and then there is the other mode − the short-lived episodes of rapid, extreme change, when the driving forces of geological, environmental and climatic change are increased by orders of magnitude. It is this level of catastrophic, natural change that the human race has not yet come to terms with.

Figure 41. View of the canyon below the dam taken in 1977.

Figure 41. View of the canyon below the dam taken in 1977.

The Teton River has cut a new channel through the massive flood debris that chokes the canyon floor. This debris is composed of the roughly 4 million cubic yards of dam material that was swept downstream by the discharging flood waters. Scouring and erosion on the canyon walls from the passage of the flood torrents is readily visible. These features can yield insight into the great diluvial catastrophes of the past.

But there is also another important message in this particular event: a well prepared, self-reliant people spontaneously, voluntarily and harmoniously rose to the challenge, came together to alleviate the worst excesses of the disaster, to render aid and assistance, and to provide food and shelter to thousands of victims. It must be acknowledged that local, state and Federal officials responded effectively as well. But it must also be recognized that the ethos of government was even then undergoing decline, as evidenced by the failure of the Teton Dam project itself. Nevertheless it still retained enough individuals endowed with the traditional values of honor, self-reliance and government as servant of the people to rise to the demands and challenges of the occasion.

And, it must also be recognized that the deterioration and bureaucratization of government has continued apace since then and as it has expanded in scope and power it has declined in efficiency and accountability. This was clearly demonstrated by the incompetent Federal response to Hurricane Katrina. The unwieldy bloated government of today is not the government of 1976, which, even then, had reached well beyond the point of diminishing returns, that point at which the cost of government exceeds the value of its benefit to the society which it presumes to govern.

It should be noted that funds appropriate for the challenges of this project, and the strenuous effort and impeccable performance required to build a structure that would have endured, were insufficient. This resulted in attempted cost saving measures that, ultimately, proved to be fatal. The great infrastructure building era in America was over with the failure of the Teton Dam, whose ruins still stand as a testament to the collapse of a grand political experiment almost exactly two centuries after it was first inaugurated. The failure of this dam is an apt metaphor for the failure of the original vision of a free people in control of their own destiny and its replacement by a bloated, unaccountable political bureaucracy that is no longer capable of fulfilling the function for which it was created.

251__TH2Saturn V rocketThe funding shortfall that compromised the Teton Dam project to the point of failure also contributed to the termination of the Apollo Space program, both of which were sacrificed on the altar of the wretched Viet Nam War as it drained the national coffers in the pursuit of imperial dominion. The ruin of the Teton Dam that still stands, is perhaps analogous to the great rusting ruin of one of the last 3 remaining rockets of the mighty Saturn fleet that was stored at the Johnson Space in center in Houston in 1977, where it lay on its side, exposed to the elements, for nearly 30 years. But no matter, the politicians, government officials and bureaucrats are seldom, if ever, held accountable for their mistakes and misdeeds, and always pass the bill for their blunders on to the taxpayers of America.

 

Meanwhile, across this land the remains of the great infrastructure building era in America are aging fast. Bridges are rusting; roads, highways and levees are degrading; water and power distribution networks are deteriorating; dam reservoirs are silting up, and over 2000 dams are considered at risk while another 2000 are considered deficient, according to the conclusion of a 2009 case study conducted by the American Society of Civil Engineers. That same organization has estimated that in order to maintain the infrastructure of this nation we will need to spend an additional $1.1 trillion by the year 2020 or face both increasingly severe economic costs to all sectors of society and the increasingly dangerous consequences of infrastructure failures. We have seen the potential consequences of the neglect of our national infrastructure with the failure of the levy system in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which amplified the severity of the storm surge far beyond what it would have been had the levees performed their function as intended.

To belabor a point, while the challenges facing America require a vigorous and flexible response for their resolution, the ability to respond is being increasingly hampered by the continued expansion of a top heavy, unaccountable, administrative and regulatory bureaucracy. Along with this goes a long entrenched and thoroughly misplaced sense of national priorities that consume the national treasure with no discernable benefit accruing to society and the regrettable increase in dependency on the authoritarian state and self-serving political elites, all the while spending the billions we need to restore our national infrastructure on the destruction of the infrastructure of other nations. And, for everything we destroy additional resources must be extracted from nature and additional energy must be consumed to rebuild, restore or replace the destruction.

Yes, there are many lessons to be gleaned from the Teton Dam disaster, human related and otherwise. In an event such as this we are privy to a diminutive echo of the great planetary disasters witnessed and survived by our ancestors − mega-disasters which have occurred with such startling frequency through the long course of prehistory and history that we would be seriously remiss should we fail to understand them, their cause, their effects, and how ancient peoples might have survived and coped. I will be devoting future articles and essays to a discussion of this critically important issue.

Yes, there are many lessons to be gleaned from the Teton Dam disaster, human related and otherwise. In an event such as this we are privy to a diminutive echo of the great planetary disasters witnessed and survived by our ancestors − mega-disasters which have occurred with such startling frequency through the long course of prehistory and history that we would be seriously remiss should we fail to understand them, their cause, their effects, and how ancient peoples might have survived and coped. I will be devoting future articles and essays to a discussion of this critically important issue.

We stand at a historical crossroads. Will we learn in time to reverse the course of decline that has plagued civilizations since history began? Will we recognize or will we disregard the ruin and wreckage of former worlds that surrounds, encompasses and underlies our present civilization, the debris out of which we have literally constructed our modern world? Can we read its message and respond accordingly? How, in fact, should we respond to the knowledge that in the time that we modern humans, homo sapiens sapiens, have walked this planet, as many as a dozen extreme global scale mega-disasters may have occurred that would be fully capable of bringing down the curtain on modern civilization and sending humanity straight back to the stone age? Is it important that we understand the causes and timing of these great catastrophes that regularly interrupt the forward momentum of the world?

Is the spirit of charity, spontaneous organization and hard work that inspired and motivated the actions of those thousands of volunteers in the face of disaster still possible today? Will we pass into oblivion as a nation and as a civilization, or ascend to unimaginable heights of achievement, triumph, and possibly even glory? The outcome of this question will come down to a matter of priorities and will. A future of unlimited possibilities is within our grasp if we prove to be worthy and well qualified and willing to seize the opportunities before us.

A future of unlimited possibilities is within our grasp if we prove to be worthy and well qualified and willing to seize the opportunities before us.

– Randall Carlson


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REFERENCES AND SOURCES
Peterson, F. Ross, “The Teton Dam Disaster: Tragedy or Triumph?” (1982). USU Faculty Honor Lectures. Paper 7. http://digitalcommons.usu.edu/honor_lectures/7

Rogers, J. David ( ) Retrospective on the Failure of Teton Dam Near Rexburg, Idaho June 5, 1976. Retrieved from: http://web.mst.edu/~rogersda/teton_dam/Retrospective%20on%20Teton%20Dam%20Failure.pdf
Seed, H. Bolton & James Michael Duncan (1987) The Failure of Teton Dam: Engineering Geology, vol. 24, pp. 173 – 205
Sherard, James L. (1987) Lessons from the Teton Dam Failure: Engineering Geology, vol. 24, pp. 239 – 256
Smalley, Ian (1992) The Teton Dam: rhyolite foundation + loess core = disaster: Geology Today, Jan.-Feb. pp. 19-22
Solava, Stacey & Norbert Delatte (2003) Lessons from the Failure of Teton Dam: Forensic Engineering, vol. pp. 178 – 189
Stamm, Gilbert G. (1976) After Teton: Reclamation Era, vol. 62, #3, autumn, pp. 1 – 19
Stene, Eric A., (1996) Teton Basin Project, Bureau of Reclamation. 31 pp.
Time Magazine (1976) TETON: Eyewitness to Disaster: June 21, vol. 107, #26, p. 74

  • Eric Blackwell

    Randall, these articles you’ve been writing are so awesome! I’m especially loving these last few articles on modern day catastrophe and what that means for humankind. Thanks a lot for taking the time to put these together and keep this amazing website going. It’s my favorite.

    • Thank you for your kind words Eric. I will forward them to Randall. So glad you are enjoying the material here. We will have a new version of the site and be launching our own podcast soon so please join our email list to stay up to date with the latest.

  • Charlie

    Well written review of our times…the story of this dam is in essence a review of our society in general…certainly a wake up call for us to stop and review just where are we now and where are we going….starting with our current senseless/costly/ruthless/selfish/demoralizing military adventures to dominate world oil.