On June 12, a Monday in 1972, people in Rapid City were only beginning to comprehend the magnitude of destruction caused by flash flooding that dumped 10 to 15 inches of rain over the Black Hills and sent a wall of water cascading through the heart of the community.
I was part of an Associated Press crew of five reporters and three photographers rushed to Rapid during the weekend to try to tell the story of the flood. We went about it as AP went about every story — by going out into the city and the other Black Hills communities, talking to officials and other citizens and putting their experiences into the stories and photographs the wire service shared around the globe. That’s how news operated then, just as it does now.
I’d been with the wire service fewer than three years. I’d covered breaking news, legislative activity, politics and elections. I’d never reported on a story that approached the magnitude of the Rapid City Flood. Very few news people had. It was important to get things right, to be as complete and clear in our storytelling as humanly possible. People impacted most directly by the disaster deserved that, and the rest of the reading and viewing world deserved our best effort to help them understand what had happened.
Looking back over the years, I still sometimes struggle to take in how big a deal it was. The destructive water came almost out of nowhere late on a Friday evening. Flood waters rampaged down the draws and valleys of the Black Hills, across Rapid City and off into the foothills and prairie the next morning. Left behind were mountain streams that still ran high, pools of water and piles of mud where none should have been and a landscape of crushed houses, trees, stores and vehicles.
It took several days to get a full count, but by the time the flood had passed, 238 people had lost their lives. Even today that’s hard to grasp. One of my jobs for the wire service during the flood aftermath was to type onto the teletype machine in the Rapid City Journal office the names of the victims as they were identified. That information went to Minneapolis, and from there to every place the AP had members.
As the Rapid City Flood has faded from our immediate awareness over the years and decades, it has become more difficult to explain what conditions were like. Oh, people recognize the casualty count and the value of public infrastructure and private property destroyed. Most people are at least somewhat accustomed to seeing such numbers from other disasters around the world, if not as many deaths and as much damage in such a confined geographical area. No, what’s hard is to explain what chaos there was and how heroically responders and public leaders worked through that mess.
I mean, think about it. If it happened today, nearly every soul involved would had been carrying a cell phone of some sort. Survivors would have been able to make almost instant contact with officials and family members to give status reports. Many of the folks who had been stranded or cut off from help would have been able to connect with assistance. At least they’d have been able to tell someone they were OK but needed help. Photos and internet posts from the whole Black Hills region would have told pieces of the story within minutes.
In 1972, it was common for people to take vacations and give those left behind no more than a vague itinerary of their likely movements. During that flood, it wasn’t uncommon for family members not to even know their travelers had been in the Black Hills area, much less in the flood. Landlines were jammed with people trying to reach the folks back home and with people across the country trying to find official word about their loved ones.
If I write about the flood nearly every year, it isn’t just to reminisce. It’s also to make sure the losses suffered that weekend — and the rescue and recovery efforts by so many selfless people — aren’t forgotten.