Photographer recalls horror of deadly ‘72 Rapid City floodRAPID CITY — It didn’t take long for Don Polovich to find that first body on the morning after the flood.
By: Kevin Woster, The Rapid City Journal
RAPID CITY — It didn’t take long for Don Polovich to find that first body on the morning after the flood.
He was on foot with his camera gear, walking in from the west on S.D. Highway 44 as dawn came to a ravaged Rapid City landscape that looked nothing like it had the night before.
Polovich and fellow Rapid City Journal staffer Jerry Mashek had spent the night stranded in a van farther up the highway, waiting for floodwaters to subside. Now, they entered their community with bleary-eyed amazement.
“I couldn’t believe the fish hatchery was all washed out,” Polovich said this week, sitting on a picnic table along the west side of Canyon Lake. “And when I came up over that rise in the highway over there, I looked out on the lake, and it was just a big mud slick, with propane tanks, a couple of cars and parts of houses.”
But that was only the beginning of what Polovich, then a young photographer for the Rapid City Journal, would see during those first few hours of daylight on Saturday, June 10, 1972.
He found the body moments later in Canyon Lake Park.
“It was all mud,” Polovich said, remembering how he turned to Mashek and said, “There’s a body.”
There would be many, many more in the coming days, as Polovich became the eyes of Journal readers through the scores of photographs he shot in the aftermath of the disaster.
But there wouldn’t be any more dead-body shots from him.
“At that point, I had enough,” he said. “One was enough.”
He snapped other pictures relentlessly, however. One of the first was a boat that had been deposited at a gas station (now a Walgreens store) at West Main Street and Mountain View Road, near The Gap. And the images went beyond the Journal’s readership areas, because Polovich initially was the photographer on scene for The Associated Press and its outlets around the world.
“At first, I was the only news photographer here,” he said.
That changed quickly, as Associated Press and United Press International sent teams of writers, photographers and technicians to Rapid City. An AP reporter reached the scene from the east about dawn Saturday morning. Other writers and photographers began showing up later that day and Sunday.
As word of the mounting death toll spread, more news agencies joined the influx. Most of them ended up at the Journal, which handled its own crunch of news demands while offering space and resources to other reporters and photographers.
“News people from across the region came to our office, our building, our darkrooms, and we shared everything we had,” said Jim Kuehn of Rapid City, editor of the Journal when the flood hit. “At one time, I think we had about 30 outsiders using us as a base from which to work.”
The Journal couldn’t publish a Saturday paper because of the initial loss of utilities. But on Saturday, the staff at the paper hustled to put together a large paper for Sunday.
“Nobody panicked,” Kuehn said. “Nobody thought we would do anything but put out a newspaper. And we were going to do it under a great deal of stress.”
It was emotional and physical stress, magnified by the continued shortage or absence of essential resources and materials. Polovich and a darkroom technician were busy turning out photographs in the old chemical-tray processing system that needed water that wasn’t available at the tap.
They improvised in order to produce prints that readers waited to see.
“We were taking water out of commodes, any place we could,” Polovich said.
If producing the paper was a challenge, delivering it to some places was a nightmare of missing homes, blocked streets and complicated travel. Jerry Shoener was overseeing delivery chores as vice president and circulation director at the Journal, which then printed about 34,000 copies daily and 36,000 Sunday.
“We ran an extra 20,000 or 30,000 copies of that first paper,” Shoener said. “Everybody who could make it in came down. Some of our biggest problems were that we couldn’t find our subscribers because their houses were gone, and we didn’t know where they were.”
Like many in the community, Shoener was touched both personally and professionally by the flood. He had two sons on dates that Friday night on the south side of Rapid Creek when the flood hit. One son made it back to the Shoener home on the north side of Rapid Creek, near Interstate 190, by about 2 a.m. The other spent the night in his vehicle in the Journal parking lot.
Those were tense hours, waiting for a loved one to come home, but Shoener spent much of the night along the creek, helping pull victims from the water.
“The water was so swift you couldn’t walk out very far. You could get in far enough to help people out,” he said.
Just as Shoener felt a personal obligation to respond, he felt a professional duty to get papers out to as many readers as possible.
Kuehn did a variety of duties that first day beyond managing the news staff. Associate editor Jack Cannon, who wrote the editorials, was out of town, so Kuehn had to write the Sunday editorial.
It mixed compassion and grief with encouragement and a call to community action and unity. The result has been praised over the years by Don Barnett, then the mayor of Rapid City.
“He had just the right theme, of the Phoenix rising from the ashes,” Barnett said. “And it was so important that the Journal published that day. When that paper came out, it said that we were still a community.”
Kuehn said, in an understated way, that he was satisfied with his editorial.
“The responsibility for putting a few words together editorially was mine,” he said. “I somehow managed to find the words I wanted.”
The Journal found plenty of words to tell the story of the Black Hills flood in coming days and months. Its coverage won awards, including some for Polovich and his photographs.
Among his many flood pictures was the image of that body, which ran in the paper the next day. It ran again two weeks later in a review of the disaster. And it ran yet again in the 10-year anniversary edition.
But after that, editors got enough negative reaction to the photo to withhold it from further use. Polovich understands those feelings but doesn’t apologize for the picture.
“No disrespect to the person or family,” he said. “But that was a big part of the whole thing — the loss of life.”
It’s a part and an image he’ll never forget, of course, just like so many others that flash in his mind from time to time when he’s hiking or biking along the gently flowing Rapid Creek.
“Sometimes I get to a place along the bike path, and I’ll remember what was there,” he said. “I’ll see those logs and other debris, all that stuff piled up against a sign or pole or bridge. Not always, but just once in a while that happens. And then I can see it all again.”