40 Years After Killer Flood, A Reshaped City Reflects

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Survivors say the wall of water was like a tsunami that destroyed nearly everything in its path as it roared through a Black Hills canyon and into town. The flash flood that hit Rapid City, S.D., on June 9, 1972, was one of the worst floods in U.S. history. It killed 238 people and damaged or washed away more than 1,300 homes.

On Saturday, the city will read the names of those who died and reflect on how the flood changed the way the city and others towns across the country built themselves.

'It Was Hell'

On that night 40 years ago, a huge thunderstorm parked over the Black Hills west of Rapid City and dropped as much as 15 inches of rain in some places. The surge of water that barreled down Rapid Creek took with it almost everything it encountered, including houses, cars and people.

Rita Rosales, who was 20 at the time, says it was a terrifying scene.

"There was so many [people] in trees and screaming and crying and the sparks were flying from electric wires, houses were on fire, it was just — it was hell," she says.

Rosales was also seven months pregnant. She and her mother were swept up in the water while trying to make it to higher ground.

"I wouldn't wish that upon nobody," she says. "That's a nightmare and a half to think that you're going to die in water and your mom is gonna go with you and you're trying to do your best to keep your mom alive."

Rosales and her mother were washed up against a building where they held on until they were rescued. But hundreds of others weren't so lucky. By the next morning folks like Alex Koscielski were left to clean up the mess and search for bodies.

"I found a boy about 5 years old," Koscielski says. "He was dead, laying on some debris. I didn't touch him or nothing, I just went back and told the authorities where he was at. Then I quit."

Wake-Up Call For Other Cities

In the aftermath of the disaster, city leaders realized it would be unwise to rebuild in the flood plain, so they joined with the federal government to create a buyout program for those living in the flood-prone areas. Today, instead of houses lining Rapid Creek, there are a series of parks along the water.

Over the years, various development projects have been proposed for the green space. But people like former Mayor Don Barnett are adamant that the parks remain.

"When some smooth talker from Minneapolis comes and says, 'Well, I want to buy 20 acres under M Hill and I want to put up some apartment houses down there and I want to put a shopping center down there,' we hope the city council will say not only 'no,' but 'hell no,' " Barnett says.

Barnett says the Black Hills flood was a wake-up call for cities across the country that had buildings in flood plains. While Rapid City rebuilt itself to handle future flash floods, many other cities have not.

Mark Anderson of the U.S. Geological Survey says mountain ranges can trap thunderstorms and then funnel huge amounts of water into canyons and downstream into towns and cities.

"The largest peak discharges of anywhere in the United States tend to be in these foothills areas," Anderson says. "So one of the national lessons is communities at the base of foothills are at special risk."

Impact Of Flood Remains 40 Years Later

Those who survived the 1972 flood need little reminder of the risk. Four decades later, survivors like Rosales still find thunderstorms unnerving.

"Like when I hear thundering and stuff, I start shaking right away," she says. "When it rains a lot, I sometimes panic."

To mark the 40th anniversary of the flood, the city is installing memorial markers along Rapid Creek to show how high the floodwaters reached. Hydrologists point out that while major flash floods are rare, in places like Rapid City, they will happen again.

Copyright 2012 South Dakota Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.sdpb.org/radio/.

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