On June 9, 2011, the Missouri River was steadily creeping over its banks into Pierre, South Dakota , where I live. On June 9, 1972, Rapid Creek was careening through Rapid City, South Dakota, where I briefly lived.

The floods in these two communities are separated by so much more than 40 years and 180 miles. Last year’s flood drove people from their homes, shuttered businesses, and caused millions of dollars in property damage. But we saw it coming. In fact, many watched helplessly as the Missouri River rose and rose, flowing unheeded over a span of weeks and months. There was some time to evacuate (as I related in “What Do You Take?”), fill sandbags, and construct levees.

In 1972, the residents of Rapid City didn’t know what hit them. A storm dumped 10 inches of rain over a 60-mile area, flash-flooding Rapid Creek which winds through the city. Water roared over the creek banks, sweeping buildings, vehicles, trees, and people, ahead of it. Throughout the night, residents clung to whatever they could to survive – fences, trees, light poles, the roofs of houses. They heard the screams of others being swept away, the crack of beams splintering, the groan of metal as cars collided. And above it all, the deafening rush of the water.

When the floodwaters receded on June 10, 1972, 238 people were dead. More than 1,300 homes were completely destroyed with 2,800 more damaged. Thirty-six businesses were lost with another 236 sustaining heavy damage. Five thousand vehicles became scrap metal. The recovery took years.

In the summer of 1985, I was an intern at a radio station in Rapid City and even thirteen years after the horrific events of that day, a heavy rain could still instill fear and dread among the city’s residents.

On the 40th anniversary of the Rapid Creek flood, Rapid City is a community resurrected, risen from the floodwaters that still flow in the memory of so many. And while the devastation caused by last year’s flood in my own community should not be minimized, I can’t help but think of just how lucky we are; it could have been so much worse.

In 1972, the Rapid City Journal gave the country a firsthand account of the Rapid Creek flood. Forty years later, they’re doing the same with an impressive series of interviews and images. It’s well worth a look, especially the collection “The People of the 1972 Flood”.

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Comments
  1. I was so young then, but I remember stories about my grandma getting on the roof to escape the rising waters of Spearfish Creek during that same storm. That is how I picture it, but I am not sure it happened. I am glad your flood is history now, too.

  2. Nisha says:

    Sometimes the ravages of nature bring tears to my eyes. A very nice tribute for the anniversary of such a terrible tragedy…

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