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Woster: The flood was unimaginable damage

I hated nearly every minute of that flood assignment. It tore my heart apart as I worked, and it threatened to crush my spirit each day.

Terry Woster
Terry Woster
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On June 11 half a century ago, I had my first bylined story in the Sunday edition of the Washington Post.

I’d rather have had the story be about anything else in the world than the Rapid City flood of 1972, but I saved a copy of the front page. The headline read: “South Dakota Flash Flood Kills 105.’’

That was an early edition of the Post’s Sunday paper. In those days, newspapers did multiple press runs each evening, especially for Sunday. They added, rewrote, updated and generally tried in each new press run to have the latest and most accurate information available when the deadline arrived for that edition.

Copies I have of other newspapers give a glimpse of how the story — the public information available about the story — developed during the course of Saturday, June 10 for Sunday’s papers. The flood began on the Friday evening, following an afternoon of heavy rain over the Black Hills. Streams swelled, creeks rose and when Canyon Lake dam broke, a wall of water rushed through the heart of Rapid City. It’s a cliché, “wall of water.’’ But those are the words from witnesses I talked with. There simply was no other way to describe what happened.

I worked for The Associated Press in the Pierre bureau. Closest to the Black Hills, I was the first of the wire service’s reporters to reach the scene, around sunrise on Saturday. Dense fog made it difficult to see exactly what had happened and still was happening. The flood water had rushed through the city and out onto the eastern plains by the time I drove in. Unimaginable damage remained. As the rising June sun burned through the fog, the magnitude of the disaster started to come into focus.

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As AP’s first reporter in Rapid City that day, my byline topped the first day’s stories and updates. Other, more experienced, reporters soon arrived. Their names took over dispatches we filed to the Minneapolis bureau for distribution across the country and around the world.

I didn’t care. Ownership of this story didn’t matter in the face of the death and destruction our team of reporters and photographers tried to tell as plainly and completely as humanly possible. Critics of the news business sometimes wonder why we flock to disasters. It isn’t for bylines and headlines. It’s a desire, an obsession, perhaps, to explain what happened and how that happening affected real people.

I don’t know if this will make sense to anyone who isn’t a reporter, but here it is: I hated nearly every minute of that flood assignment. It tore my heart apart as I worked, and it threatened to crush my spirit each day. I collapsed in bed each night but couldn’t sleep. When the anniversary date comes around, strong feelings return. In my mind, I see things I witnessed during my days on the scene, and I didn’t see the worst. Still, I have never wished I hadn’t been there. To this day I’m thankful I was among those who struggled to explain what had happened, who helped compose a first draft of history, as it is sometimes called. Much of our early effort was incomplete, even poorly informed, but we tried, all of us.

The lead on my first Post story said: “Authorities listed 105 persons known dead and more than 500 missing today after heavy rains in the nearby Black Hills sent flood waters swirling into Rapid City and surrounding areas during the night.’’

A later version that evening, published in the Goldsboro, N.C., News-Argus, read: “Flash floods, touched off by torrential rains in the Black Hills, left 150 persons dead and 500 missing Saturday, victims of walls of water that swept through Rapid City and the surrounding area during the night.’’

In all, 238 people died in the flood. The final count wasn’t known for days. My college friend Don Barnett, mayor of Rapid City at the time, calls 1972 “the year we lost our youth.’’

In an email exchange maybe 15 years ago, he wrote, “I was 29 on the night of the flood. Much older the next morning.’’

So many others were, as well.

Opinion by Terry Woster
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