Former Mayor recounts journey from terror to triumph after 1972 flood

Rapid Creek ImageRAPID CITY, S.D.- Over a foot of rain fell from the evening of June 9 to the morning of June 10 in 1972, taking thousands of homes and cars and hundreds of lives. As the Mayor of Rapid City, Don Barnett was tasked with making sure hope for his town didn’t wash away too.

“We tied a bunch of ladders together and we walked out there in six feet of water and tried to hold on to something,” he remembers. “And then these 11 young men from the airbase carried dozens and dozens of people back to the shoreline. It was a night of absolute terror and an absolute frenzy….because we knew that we were failing to save everybody, of course, there was a grief issue.”

There were also a massive infrastructure issue, with hospitals flooded, water plants in ruins, and no homes for anyone who had once lived along the river.

The feds really helped us,” Barnett adds. “They gave us about $50 million to relocate something like 1700 homes from the floodplain near Rapid Creek. And then we converted that land to recreational and scenic improvements, and it made Rapid City one of the most beautiful and gorgeous cities in America.”

Changes to policy followed, designed to prevent such widespread loss in the instance of a rapid rise of the creek.

Barnett explained why these changes were crucial to protecting homes and eventually preserving natural habitat.

Well, I think one of the most gigantic policy changes that the city council, in their wisdom, made, was to not allow the citizens of Rapid City to repair their homes so near the creek. And that evolved into an evacuation of the urban flood plain. And that meant that we created this recreational avenue that now runs from Canyon Lake way down to the fairgrounds.”

Plus, local officials, many of whom were survivors themselves, used their positions to advocate for the town.

“Those city councilmen love the city as deeply as I did, and we governed as a team, and I think that was the hallmark of the recovery,” says Barnett. “But those people who set the example, were the survivors of the flood. They lost their home. They might have lost a family member, but they picked up sticks. They didn’t demonstrate to me a lot of self-pity and they were determined to survive, and have Rapid City become a model for disaster recovery. And that credit, as I’ve said before, does not go to me. It goes to the city council and the survivors who lived through that terrible, terrible night of terror.”

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