MERCER: Will we heed lessons of catastrophic floods?

PIERRE -- Last weekend marked the 40th anniversary of the 1972 flash flood that ripped apart Rapid City on the night of June 9 and early hours of June 10.

PIERRE -- Last weekend marked the 40th anniversary of the 1972 flash flood that ripped apart Rapid City on the night of June 9 and early hours of June 10.

The anniversary also gives purpose to pause and further consider the controlled flood that inundated Pierre, Fort Pierre, Dakota Dunes and the Sioux City area one year ago.

We describe such events as disasters.

There probably are other words that would be more honest. Because, in these lives we lead, we often create our own problems by ignoring what we know to be true.

Here's a quote that fits this weekend:


"Folks built what they could afford. Some very expensive homes. But it was not how expensive they were, or how nice they looked. It was that they enjoyed and wanted to be where they were."

The author of that statement was Douglas M. Newlin. He could have been talking about Rapid City or Pierre or Dakota Dunes or Fort Pierre or parts of Sioux City or other places in the Black Hills or along the Missouri River.

He wrote it 40 years ago as part of his preface to the comprehensive study about the 1972 Rapid City flood that was published not very long afterward.

In his preface he discussed how people wanted to and did build along the "serene, soft rippling" of Rapid Creek and didn't heed the knowledge gained in the past century.

"I envied those that had a home close to the creek, as I'm sure many others did," he wrote. "As time went on, the locations along the creek, as far as owning or purchasing, increased in value. Not only within the city limits, but both up and down the creek for choice locations."

The 1972 report is stunning and demoralizing to revisit.

The many individual statements, summaries, maps, charts and photographs that comprise the 650-plus pages show many mistakes were made in the hours and months and years before the floodwater ripped into the city.

Yet those same documents show many wise decisions were made in the midst of a fight for survival. There were thousands of incidents of heroism as the waters swept through the populated areas and in the hours and days directly after.


As the report points out, the lives of more than 8,000 people who were in the flood's destructive path were spared.

The true disaster, it seems from the 1972 report, is that so many people didn't heed the warnings that were issued.

And that takes us to the Missouri River controlled flood of 2011.

People believed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, through its series of dams on the Missouri, would always protect the hundreds of millions of dollars, perhaps billions of dollars, in houses, businesses, other buildings, equipment and possessions they built along the river in recent decades, especially at Pierre and Fort Pierre, and at Dakota Dunes and parts of Sioux City generally.

That is crazy when the people of South Dakota had already seen from 1972 the unstoppable power of a wall of water that couldn't be controlled by the small Canyon Lake impoundment at Rapid City.

Think of it another way. Think of the electricity that is produced from the force of water that gravity slams through the turbines at the Missouri River dams. Think of the engineering standards and materials necessary to produce equipment strong enough to handle that raw power.

On the other hand, visit Yankton and walk along the Missouri there. The riverfront is green but seems barren, other than recreation facilities such as the baseball field.

That's on purpose.


In Yankton, it is evident that people understood the river's power. They have continued to respect that power.

The 1972 report from the Rapid City flood is a document that should be used by teachers in our South Dakota schools. The report covers topics from communication and medical care, to food supplies and cloud seeding.

The individual summaries contain hard truths.

Here is another quote:

"I personally think that there was adequate warning, but no one listened," KKLS radio station manager Larry Laverne wrote in the report he filed for the publication.

"Like I stated earlier, I was in a basement office a half block from the creek telling others to leave the area.

"It never even dawned on me that we could get flooded, and even when the door broke, I thought we were going to get a foot of water."

When the water came, he took the radio station's employees and others in the building to its top floor three stories up.

"I went down to the second floor and could see the water running about four feet deep past the front door and windows, then they broke and everyone got pretty scared, we knew that if the building went and we went into the water it was all over.

"No one panicked, we all prayed silently to ourselves, and it was real quiet."

All at the KKLS building made it through.

The report states how many didn't. In the four-county area of Meade, Lawrence, Pennington and Custer there would be 231 people identified dead and five who weren't found.

There were 436 houses destroyed completely and 90 more damaged. There were 304 trailer homes destroyed and 406 badly damaged. Thirty-six businesses were totally destroyed and 236 were damaged.

The Corps of Engineers needs space to properly manage the Missouri River for its intended purposes of flood control and hydropower. More riverside development only further complicates that.

As Rapid City showed us 40 years ago, when too much water comes, hope by itself isn't enough.

Related Topics: HISTORY
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