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Fmr. Mayor Carries Same Message As In 1972

June 8, 2012, 7:11 PM by Jenna Petrak

Fmr. Mayor Carries Same Message As In 1972

During his first year as the youngest mayor in Rapid City history, Don Barnett's voice was the first warning many residents received of what would be one of the deadliest disasters ever recorded.

Barnett was only the Rapid City mayor from 1971 to 1975, but he will always be remembered for the efforts he helped coordinate following the disaster that struck the town four decades ago.

"He says, 'Don, somebody could get killed in this thing.' That somebody turned out to be 238 people," Barnett said as he recalled what a local utility worker told him the night of June 9, 1972, after they saw a car get washed away.

Barnett issued the first warnings through local TV and radio stations and then he went door to door with National Guardsmen to warn residents along Rapid Creek of the rising water.

"Thirty minutes later, the television stations and the radio stations lost power so there was no way to expand that warning.  And the agony had begun and the police department began to find bodies at 11 p.m. that night," Barnett said.

In the hours that followed, Barnett says the destruction and death was unreal.

"About 7:30 a.m. that morning, a police car joined me out at Meadowbrook Elementary School and the police car was towing a 17-foot U-Haul trailer. Volunteers filled that trailer with bodies by 9 a.m. that morning," Barnett said.

It's the 238 lives that were lost that served as motivation for the city council to make a decision in the 48 hours following the flood that still stands today.

Barnett says federal emergency officials offered to start rebuilding homes immediately, but the Rapid City Public Works Director refused.

"And Leonard Swanson, a professional engineer and graduate of South Dakota State where I went to college, he looked at me and he said, 'No, we cannot sentence these survivors to one more night on this suicidal floodplain,’" Barnett said.

The floodplain that was once littered with damaged homes and cars is now a pristine network of parks. Barnett says commemorating the anniversary of the flood is a reminder of why Rapid City residents now play along the creek, but haven't lived here in 40 years.

"And we say in Rapid City that the floodplain is a wonderful place to visit. It's a wonderful place to have fun. It's a stupid place to sleep. That's the eleventh commandment in Rapid City – ‘We do not sleep in the floodplain,’" Barnett said.

It's a decision made just hours after the flood and a decision that Barnett hopes no one will ever forget.

"But they never spent one more night on the floodplain and that is the story of the Rapid City recovery," Barnett said.

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