"Remembrance and Renewal" is the theme this weekend as residents of Rapid City and the Black Hills reflect upon the flood that forever changed their lives and communities 40 years ago.
South Dakotans throughout the entire state should take pause as well to remember that night in 1972 when over 10 inches of rain fell on much of the Hills, with reports of up to 15 inches near Nemo. The deluge of water turned creeks into raging rivers, flooded neighborhoods and streets, burst dams and wreaked havoc across the region. The flood resulted in 238 fatalities, injured thousands, destroyed 1,300 homes, and damaged 2,800 more, with total damage estimated over $165 million – which amounts to over $900 million in inflation adjusted dollars.
I know people who have only recently been able to talk about the devastation and others who still cannot bring themselves to reflect on that harrowing night. It is believed to be the second most deadly flood in the history of the United States. Yet through that tragedy has come triumph. The resiliency of broad-shouldered South Dakotans emerged, as we have seen in other communities throughout the state when ravaged by floods, fires, or tornadoes.
From these flooded areas in Rapid City, we now find golf courses, parks, and bike paths. The Civic Center and Central High School construction soon followed. Residents in Keystone, Black Hawk, Box Elder, and elsewhere did the same, rebuilding their communities despite heavy hearts.
It is estimated that 60 to 70 percent of the people now living in the area were not there 40 years ago. It is important that we reflect upon that night so young people and citizens new to the community know of the losses that were endured and are aware of the sacrifices that were made.
It is through this 40th anniversary remembrance that plaques become more than bronze nameplates and memorials become more than just decorations. They become personalized with the memories of friends and family lost, and gain meaning for the survivors who stood together to rebuild Rapid City and towns throughout the Black Hills.
This weekend will allow us all to solemnly remember those losses, to celebrate that resolve, and to quietly rejoice in the renewal.
By Senator John Thune
Forty years ago, I was not even a year old and just beginning to explore the world for the first time. On the other side of the state, however, many families were searching for loved ones and watching their lives change forever.
On June 9, 1972, torrential rainfall in the Black Hills resulted in extreme flash flooding in Rapid City and surrounding local communities. Creeks and streams turned into rivers, which in turn broke through the Canyon Lake Dam, surging into the city. More than 10 inches of rain fell in just over six hours. In all, 238 lives were lost and over 3,000 were injured. Over 1,300 homes and 5,000 automobiles were completely destroyed. Communities and neighborhoods were unrecognizable.
While remembering that day and the devastating loss it brought still brings pain, what rings louder is the way the Black Hills communities and the State of South Dakota rallied together to rebuild. Members of the South Dakota National Guard used ropes and ladders to pull men, women and children from the raging and frigid waters. Nearly 500 airmen came in from Ellsworth to help with relief efforts throughout the night and more arrived in the days that followed. Physicians, dentists and nurses worked tirelessly to assist and aid the wounded and to administer typhoid and tetanus shots.
According to a speech given by then-Rapid City Mayor Don Barnett fifteen years following the flood, seventeen federal agencies were able to join together to assist the Rapid City community without duplication of efforts, and most importantly, without delay. Too often we hear and are witness to dysfunction and discord within the federal government, but the 1972 flood is a shining example of the kind of role the federal government should play – to help its citizens when they are no longer able to help themselves.
After the waters receded, homes and businesses were relocated out of the floodplain and recovery began to take shape. But the scars of those days would remain.
This weekend, the Rapid City community will remember and honor those who lost their lives that June. And as we remember the tragedy, we also look at where we are today. Rapid City has blossomed into a thriving community for visitors, businesses and residents. Not only should the Black Hills communities be proud of the teamwork they demonstrated 40 years ago, but they should also be proud of their communities as they stand today.
South Dakotans have demonstrated time and time again that we are a resilient people. From the 1972 flood, to the Spencer tornado in 1998, or the Missouri River flood of last year, we rally together and lend a helping hand. Although disasters happen all too often, here in South Dakota, we have 800,000 pairs of shoulders to lean on.
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