WOSTER: June 9, 1972: remembering Rapid City flood
As I drove west through the pre-dawn darkness on June 10, 1972, my imagination worked overtime trying to picture what I might see when the sun came up and I reached Rapid City.
It was a time before cell phones. The overnight editor for The Associated Press in Minneapolis had reached me at my in-laws' place in Chamberlain with word that people were dying in flash flooding in the Black Hills. I needed to get to the area as quickly as possible, he said. I hurried west. I stopped once to use a pay phone, but new information was scarce. Reports, I was told, suggested the death count could be high.
What I imagined as I drove was that at some point I'd arrive at a vast lake of water. I wondered how far from Rapid City that would be and how I'd find a boat or some other craft to reach the places I'd need to be to begin covering the story. What I knew of major floods came largely from stories and images of breached levees along the Mississippi River and lower Missouri River. I imagined the Black Hills' gateway city covered with two or three feet of water, water that would stay for days and weeks before slowly receding. I imagined the sort of scene that we've been seeing this spring in images of the flooding from here in South Dakota down to the Gulf of Mexico.
I never imagined that I'd be able to drive past Ellsworth Air Force Base and into town, right up to the front of the Rapid City Journal building. It wasn't as simple as that sounds, of course. I began dodging debris on the interstate as I crossed that low spot west of Ellsworth. From there on, streets had branches and boards and all other sorts of obstacles. Emergency workers were everywhere. When I explained to one of them my purpose for being there, he gave me directions to streets that would take me through the eastern part of Rapid City and on to the newspaper office.
In the soft light of early morning, I could see cars pushed onto lawns, houses moved from foundations and mud everywhere. Surprisingly, I saw little real standing water. The 10 or so inches of rain that had fallen across the Black Hills during the afternoon and night of Friday, June 9, had pretty much rushed down the draws and canyons, across the heart of the community and out onto the gently rolling grasslands and fields east of town.
When I reached the Journal newsroom, it seemed the full staff had reported for work. The Journal had a big staff then, a mix of younger and older reporters, editors and photographers, uniformly talented, witty, caring, dedicated and driven. An editor named Jerry Mashek, a burly guy wearing a tank top and cut-offs, told me to find a place, grab whatever I needed and ask for anything I couldn't find on my own. He yelled at another reporter to give me a quick tour of the town so I could start my on-scene reporting. What I saw was beyond anything I had imagined driving west.
The flood took 238 lives in a matter of a few hours, in Rapid City and in area towns. It was the most important story of my career, not only because of the magnitude of the deaths and damage but also because so few sources of information existed. No cell phones, no social media, no multi-platform news outlets.
The Journal's staff performed magnificently to tell their citizens what happened and what was to come. So did the AP for its world audience. So did the many other local and national news organizations that came to the scene. We performed a public service there, what newspapers and broadcasters have always done best.
During my time there and in weeks after, I wondered how Rapid City could possibly recover. The destruction seemed beyond the capacity of a group of humans to repair and replace.
But, like Sandburg's "Chicago," Rapid City had big shoulders and good people. It took years, but recovery happened. The resiliency of that community still amazes me.