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A Flood Of Memories

June 4, 2012, 10:09 PM by Don Jorgensen


The 1972 Rapid City flood was one of the deadliest floods in U.S. history.  238 people lost their lives as a massive wall of water rushed down a canyon, wiping out everything in its path.

This weekend will mark the 40th anniversary of that flood.

The devastating scenes from the Rapid City flood are horrific and for some of those who survived, still unspeakable.  The flood happened in the middle of the night after torrential rains in the area and caught many people off guard.

"It was terrible; it was just like one of those inner sanctum movies," former Fire Chief Deputy Dean Reichert said.

Reichert was the deputy fire chief back then.  He said fire fighters had been keeping a close eye on Rapid Creek most of the night and eventually made the decision to start evacuations.

"They told people to get out, or they better be prepared to get ready to get out because up in Dark Canyon it was flooding and it was washing small buildings off the foundation," Reichert said.

Those who didn't heed the warning paid a terrible price.

"It was just awful, just awful; you don't know how horrible that was," Perry Rahn said.

Rahn was a geologist at the South Dakota School of Mines at the time.  Rahn had years of knowledge, studying science that deals with the dynamics and physical history of the earth.  He says because homeowners were allowed to build next to Rapid Creek, he knew if there was a 100-year flood something like this could happen.

Rahn still gets choked up talking about it. He was one of hundreds of people who volunteered for the next two days helping with search and rescue missions.

Don Jorgensen: Is there any particular image that still stands with you 40 years later?
Rahn: Yeah, I found a four-year-old boy right over down here.  You see, this used to be all houses right here.  The flood plain of Rapid Creek; 100-cubic-feet per second, but on June 9t,h it was 50,000-cubic-feet per second.  That's like two Missouri Rivers.  It was about 30 feet deep here, flowing 20 miles per hour and carrying boulders, large ponderosa trees, smashed houses, all while the people were drowning.  About a block from where we are standing, there were probably 100 people here.

But 40 years later, it's not just the images that still haunt him. 

"I just wish I had spoken out more as a young man because I taught geology courses at the School of Mines and brought students here.  I said, 'This is crazy; I should have done more than that.'  That's my guilt feeling and I should have spoken up to the city and county planning and tried to prevent this from happening," Rahn said.

The 1972 Rapid City flood obviously changed a lot of people's lives, but it also changed Rapid City and how it responds to natural disasters.

At the time, Rapid City only had a handful of warning sirens.  Today it has 36.  But those aren't the only changes.

"We've put in a series of stream gauges and precipitation gauges through a partnership with the National Weather Service and the U.S. Geological Survey and Emergency Management," Pennington County Emergency Manager Dustin Willet said. "What that does is allows us to measure the water flow in the upper most reaches of the drainage that flows into the creek, so we can see an event developing.  We can see a flood hours before we ever see a rise in the levels in Rapid City."

The city made a groundbreaking decision shortly after the flood that other cities around the country would follow.  No longer can anyone build in the Rapid Creek flood plain.   It's an area that once was littered in death, but now is full of life.

"No one would ever sleep another night in the flooding.  They didn't want anyone sleeping in a motel or home within the floodway and so they created the greenway.  They don't allow building permits in the greenway.  So not only does it serve as a shining example of disaster to minimize a disaster in the community, but at the same time, they've created a tourist attraction within the city that provides great recreations and a sense of pride for the community," Willet said.

After the flood, Rahn dedicated his life traveling the country giving speeches and educating other cities about potential flood dangers and how better to protect themselves from natural disasters.

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