Remembering the Flood of 1972

The 43rd anniversary of the devastating Black Hills Flood of 1972 is today, June 9. For some it seems like yesterday because they were here in the area when it happened. For many of us, we didn’t live here, we are too young to have been a part of it or it feels like something we have read in about in our history books. The Flash Flood in the Hill City area over this last weekend was a good reminder of how rapidly storms can develop and turn “ugly” leaving lots of water behind. For the Hill City storm, we were lucky. No one was lost, no one needed to be rescued, and there weren’t any homes or bridges destroyed. For those of us who have chosen to live in this area, there’s a 1% chance a storm of the magnitude of 1972 flood could happen any day. For this reason, we must never forget. We need to remember and be reminded.

The following excerpt was text and information gathered for the 40th anniversary of the Black Hills Flood of 1972 for an exhibit that Emergency Management participated in at the Journey Museum. Some things have changed since 2012 when this information was put together, but it is still good information discussing where we were “THEN” in 1972, and where we are “NOW”.2004-07-08 15.01.24-2

Emergency Management Journey Museum Exhibit 2012

Disasters, whether natural or man caused, have happened and will continue to occur in Pennington County. Emergency Management employs 4 basic strategies to minimize the effects of a disaster while maximizing the resiliency of the community. Preparedness-Response-Recovery-Mitigation.


Preparedness is how we change behavior to “get ready” for the impact of emergency or disaster events for our­selves, our family, and our community. Preparedness is part of a continuous cycle of planning, training, equipping, exercising and taking corrective ac­tion. The end result is hopefully an increase in safety and improved coordination among response agencies during an incident.

Human beings go through life thinking they are not at risk; people think “Even though bad things happen they are not going to happen to me.” That mindset existed in the 1970’s as it does today. 40 years ago there was less data available regarding a weath­er emergency and inconsistent ways to spread news about an impending emergency of any kind.

THEN: 1972

  • Primary weather detection radar at Ellsworth Air Force Base could not provide the details on thunderstorms; it was operating intermittently during the flood.
  • National Weather Service depended on eye-witness reports of storms and floods as they were occurring.
  • People could learn of storm and flood warnings only by television and radio.
  • Radio and television staff hand-copied warnings as National Weather Service personnel read them over a one-way telephone hotline. They then read them over the air or composed a message to scroll on the television screen.
  • 4 working sirens, but no record they were sounded.
  • People ignored warnings or didn’t take them seriously.
  • New weather technologies help forecasters detect and warn of floods and other emergencies.

NOW: 2012

  • Weather Satellites are used to monitor storm systems, thunderstorm development, and atmospheric water vapor.
  • Doppler Radars provide detailed images of storm intensity and movement, rainfall rates, and precipitation estimates. Geographic overlays indicate whether the heavy rain is falling in flash-flood prone areas or on saturated soil and where the water is flowing.
  • METWARN is a network of automated stream and precipitation gauges placed along Rapid Creek and its tributaries to provide earlier indication of floods and advance warnings to people along the streams. It was established in the late 1990s as a partnership among the Rapid City/Pennington County Emergency Manage­ment Office, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the National Weather Service. Weather forecasters monitor the gauge data for heavy rain and flooding and use the data to verify the Doppler radar precipitation estimates, especially in remote areas.
  • NOAA Weather Radio receivers have an alarm to alert people when weather warnings are issued even if they are sleeping, not watching television or listening to the radio, don’t live near a warning siren, or the electricity is off.
  • Emergency Alert System allows local television, radio, and cable TV systems to automatically broadcast warnings from NOAA Weather Radio to their viewers and listeners.
  • Wireless Emergency Alerts are sent to wireless devices, cell phones and pagers with specific information regarding areas affected by warnings.


Most people think of the response phase as trained and equipped emergency responders providing assistance,rescue operation when in actuality, during a large scale disaster this can literally be any community member responding to help family members, neighbors or community. This phase is putting your preparedness into action. Effective com­munication is a key component in a response effort.

Then: 1972

  • A central 9-1-1 did not exist in 1972. Each agency had its own dispatch center and telephone. The basic 9-1-1 service was turned on in the mid-70’s.
  • Communication among response agencies and rumor control with the public was difficult to follow and correct, many thought Pactola Dam had failed.
  • During the flood there was tragic loss of responders including 3 firefighters and 1 Reserve Police Of­ficer. These losses may not have occurred with the training and safety equipment responders have today for use in a swift-moving water environment.

Now: 2012

  • A consolidated Public Safety answering point (ESCC) was opened in 1993, now located in the Public Safety Building.
  • Communication devices are more accessible, reliable and powerful.
  • Responders not only have the ability to talk to their own agency but other agencies as well.
  • Cell phones offer a huge advantage for instant communication that hasn’t always been available.
  • Social Media offers an immediate tool for information to be spread to the community.
  • New teams specifically trained and equipped for water environments-Water Rescue Team & SAR


Then: 1972

  • Sheriff Glen Best, 1952, 1956-1974
  • 10 responding personnel, 5 deputy positions were added shortly after the Flood

Now: 2012

  • Sheriff- Kevin Thom
  • 78 responding personnel


Then: 1972

  • SAR didn’t exist. It was started in 1973, largely due to the flood and the obvious need that arose to have a team specifically trained and equipped to lessen the burdens on local government in providing for the safety and welfare of its citizens.

Now: 2012

  • Team Leader, Rick Lehmann
  • 35 team members & trainees, trained in search and rescue, vehicle extrication, vertical rescue, trench rescue and fire-fighting support.


Then: 1972

  • Fire Administrator position did not exist
  • 500 Volunteers, Basic training included 40-50 hours of structure and wildland training
  • Keystone Fire Station was heavily damaged in the flood.

Now: 2012

  • Fire Administrator Denny Gorton
  • 400 Volunteers, Basic firefighter has 500+ hours of structure, wild land, incident command, hazard material response, and EMS, all training is ongoing


Then: 1972

  • Water Rescue Team didn’t exist. It was formed in 1987 with 14 responders to mitigate water-related events and provide water-related public education.

Now: 2012

  • Team Leader Brian Povandra
  • 16 team members are made up of Rapid City Police Officers, Rapid City Firefighters, Pennington County Sheriff’s Office Deputies, and Rapid City/Pennington County Emergency Management.


Then: 1972

  • Fire Chief Ken Johnson
  • 71 responding personnel
  • 3 Sub-stations, (Stations 3, 4, & 7)
  • 3 Firefighters lost in the flood, Capt. George Carter, Lt. Henry “Hank” Tank, George “Ike” Sumners

Carter, Tank, Sumners

Now: 2012

  • Fire Chief Mike Maltaverne
  • 128 responding personnel (firefighters and paramedics)
  • 7 Substations

newspaper june 26 pd and fd

RAPID CITY POLICE DEPT.Daniel Wickard edited

Then: 1972

  • Police Chief Ronald Messer
  • 64 responding personnel
  • 1 Reserve Officer lost in the flood, Daniel Wickard

Now: 2012

  • Police Chief Steve Allender
  • 115 Responding Officers
  • The only nationally accredited police department in SD


The next step in the process is recovery. This begins immediately and almost simultaneously with the response effort, the goal being to do what it takes to get things back to “normal”. Sometimes “normal” is changing the way the things have been done before, as was the case in 1972 following the Flood.

THEN: 1972

At the time of the flood, there wasn’t a fund in place for community improvement. In 1972, the Civic Improvement Tax, a ½ cent sales tax implemented after the flood, helped revitalize the flood-disaster area in Rapid City and put infrastructure back into the community.

In an emotional meeting on Sunday evening, June 11, 1972, some decisions were made for the future of the floodplain area. In the words of Don Barnett, Rapid City mayor in 1972…mess of houses

“The federal folks and the many local folks wanted the city to repair the mobile home parks near the creek…At a moment of pure exhaustion, when the pressures for housing and the theme of the recovery were most pronounced and severe, the city council and I met in the courthouse and just about made a terrible mistake.”

During the meeting, Leonard Swanson, Rapid City Public Works Director, made a bold statement, “We cannot sentence the survivors to one more night near the creek in the suicidal floodplain.” That night the decision was made that the city of Rapid City would never permit the homes that were near the creek to be repaired and occupied again. Mr. Swanson’s comment became the first rule and the primary theme of the recovery.

NOW: 2012main street square

  • Vision Fund- ½ cent sales tax had its roots in civic improvement projects post-1972 Flood and it contin­ues to fund projects in Rapid City from roads and infrastructure, softball complexes, to recreational areas like Main Street Square.



Mitigation efforts are changes made to lessen the aftermath of the crisis and prevent future disasters from hav­ing the same effect should they happen again.

THEN 1972

  • There was little to no zoning regarding people living in the flood plain and having homes along the waterways. The National Flood Insurance program was offered on a strictly voluntary basis and few people took advantage of it.

NOW 2012

  • The decisions that were made in the recovery phase of the Flood lead the way for continued mitigation efforts. 1972 Rapid City Mayor Don Barnett commented, “The decision was made to physically move the remaining houses; to mitigate, to make a radical change in the pattern of life on both sides of the creek throughout Rapid City. Through a series of federal programs….we purchased and relocated, over the next six years, 1,500 residential units…. city government, with the help of the federal government also purchased and assisted with the relocation of 140 commercial businesses and structures.”
  • National Flood Insurance Act – After a series of flood disasters in 1972 (the Rapid City Flood being one of them), Congress amended the National Flood Insurance Act of 1968 in 1973 to strengthen incentives for local participation. This change prohibited Federal agencies from providing assistance for acquisition or construction purposes in the designated floodplains of a community unless the community participated in the National Flood Insurance Program. Second, if a community participated, federal agencies and federally regulated or insured lenders required flood insurance as a condition of grants and loans.

Greenway –FloodMitigationMeasures2.pdf

  • Born in the aftermath of the flood, Rapid City’s greenway system was built as a life-saving flood control device, it has become a source of community pride for its beauty and recreational activities that include a pedestrian / bicycle trail system.
  • US Army Corp of Engineers completed two important mitigation projects from 1977-1979.
    • Levee embankment extends 4,150 feet from Sheridan Lake to Canyon Lake Drive protects the neighborhood off Jane St.
    • Channel improvements behind Baken Park extend 2,700 feet in length from Canyon Lake Drive to 300 feet downstream of West Omaha Street. The responders and emergency planners in Pennington County have made great efforts to prepare, exercise and train how they will respond in an emergency. The more prepared you are the better your chances of survival. How can we overcome this? First we need to understand that our planet isn’t safe and will never be completely safe. We don’t need to live in a state of fear, but we do need to have an awareness that terrible things can and will happen and the effects of these things can be lessened if we take action steps towards preparedness and be­ing ready.


Plan, Practice, Repeat

For many of us who live in Rapid City, disasters like the 1972 Black Hills Flood seem like a distant memory. It’s something that won’t happen in our lifetime. Let’s discuss how our bodies work in a stressful or emergency situation and why it makes sense to plan ahead of time.

How the brain works in an emergency: (As explained by Amanda Ripley in The Unthinkable.)

Your blood pressure and heart rate shoot up. For most people, the chemistry of the blood changes so it can coagulate more easily. At the same time, your blood vessels constrict so you bleed less if you get hurt. A slew of hormones surge through your system, giving your gross motor muscles an almost bionic boost. This reaction is a gift of the fear you are experiencing. Like a country under attack, the human body has limited resources. The brain must decide what to prioritize and what to neglect. As your muscles become taut and ready and your body creates its own natural painkillers, your abilities to reason and perceive your surroundings deteriorate. Cortisol interferes with the part of the brain that handles complex thinking. You suddenly may have trouble solving problems, even simple ones—like how to put on a life jacket or unbuckle a seat belt. All of our senses are profoundly altered. The amygdala learns about danger in two ways. When you hear a startling sound your ears send a signal directly to the amygdala to trigger the sympathetic nervous system reaction. But the sound also sends a signal that travels through the cortex, the outer layer of gray matter of higher brain functions. The cortex recognizes the sounds (if they’ve been heard and identified before) and sends a more nuanced message to the amygdala. It sends a more accurate depiction of what happened, but it is also slower at sending the response.

Skill is the ability to do something automatically, without thinking about it. You develop this “skill” by repetition, by practicing the right thing over and over again. It’s easy to assume that you’ll be able to gather what is needed when something unexpected happens. But often there is only minutes to do so. Keep your emergency kit in an easily accessible place and make sure all family members are aware of its location.

Take a few moments today and remember, contemplate, and plan for the future. It’s not a matter of “if” an emergency will happen, but “when.”  Plan, Practice, Repeat.

More photos and history on the flood can be found on the Rapid City Library 1972 Flood page.

One thought on “Remembering the Flood of 1972

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s