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Woster: The '72 flood proved that misinformation causes unnecessary public panic

During this 50th anniversary year of the Rapid City flood, I’ve recalled that brief panic now and then and wondered what it might have been like if social media had existed.

Terry Woster
Terry Woster
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The Saturday evening of the Rapid City Flood of 1972, rumors of a second wall of water briefly had motorists and pedestrian scrambling for higher ground.

The panicked flight from a second possible flash flood through the heart of a shocked and wrecked city lasted only minutes before better information became available and folks gradually settled down. Those minutes, though, terrified folks. I know. With three other wire service reporters, I drove right into crush of traffic.

I hope, 50 years later, people haven’t forgotten that flood. Torrential rains fell over the Black Hills. Flood waters rushed down valleys and draws, through towns small and large and directly into the heart of Rapid City itself. In all, 238 people died and millions upon millions worth of properties were damaged.

That happened the afternoon and evening of Friday, June 9, and into early morning Saturday, June 10. That Saturday evening, I drove west with the other Associated Press reporters, surveying damage and seeking information. As we drove toward the Baken Park area, I saw the eastbound lanes filled with speeding vehicles. Drivers honked. Passengers waved their arms and shouted. What they said was that the dam at Pactola Reservoir above the city was failing.

I found a spot to turn around and joined the rushing traffic until we found a phone booth. One call to emergency managers told us the rumor was unfounded. In a short time, that word spread, the stampede faded and a measure of calm returned to a city that needed no more bad news.

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I probably remember more cars and people than were actually involved. It was over quickly. Still, it showed how one careless bit of misinformation, one unsubstantiated rumor, can create public panic in such conditions.

During this 50th anniversary year of the Rapid City flood, I’ve recalled that brief panic now and then and wondered what it might have been like if social media had existed. In 1972, the Pactola dam rumor spread in small area, just the people traveling in the immediate area of Bakken Park. My carload of reporters fact-checked the information in a public phone booth. And we complained about how people shouldn’t be able to spread false information. Letting off steam after an adrenaline rush.

These days, of course, we’d each have had a cell phone, no need for phone booths. Officials would have gotten correct information out quickly and widely.

These days, too, the rumor would have had greater legs, what with the infinite reach of the internet. A lie travels halfway around the world before truth gets its boots on, someone said. And they said that before social media. Perhaps fact checkers would have used the superspeed of the internet to catch the rumor, but maybe not. And perhaps people would have believed the fact checkers, but maybe not.

I read the other day that the Homeland Security Department created a thing called a disinformation governance board. It’s supposed to counter the spread of false information, especially from human smugglers and from Russia, one news story said. Critics say it could stifle free speech.

Like many other people my age, I read Orwell’s “1984’’ in school. I remember the Ministry of Truth that was all about lies. I’m cautious about government restricting information. I would need to know much more about the Homeland Security board works to be comfortable, even though I hate bad information.

During the Missouri River flooding of 2011, I worked for the state in the Emergency Operations Center. Rumors flew up and down the river basin - Garrison Dam is cracked, Oahe Dam could fail. The situation was frightening enough without adding misinformation to it.

We spent a fair amount of time chasing rumors. I never thought of what we did as stifling free speech. When we became aware of inaccurate information, we would call the local newspaper or broadcaster and ask if they’d run the latest facts. We didn’t threaten. We didn’t and couldn’t order anyone to use our information. We offered what we had. Most of the time, people thanked us.

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In a time before careless and deliberate misinformation became common, that was usually enough.

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