In 1972, Rapid City mayor Don Barnett used a "Today" show interview to make a plea to a national television audience.
After he told them about the death toll from the June 9 flood, he warned that the Black Hills were on the verge of a second disaster, an “economic nightmare” that would occur if tourists stayed away that summer.
“You could count the tourists in the Mount Rushmore parking lot on one hand,” Barnett said Thursday, thinking back to the week after the flood, when not only were families and the community in crisis, but business leaders were worried about the economy, too. Visitors "immediately diverted around South Dakota. We had to do something about tourism.”
This morning, nearly 40 years after he made that plea, Barnett will be back on "Today" to make a different statement — about recovery, resilience and gratitude.
Barnett will be featured as part of a story about the 40th anniversary of the 1972 Black Hills Flood that will air nationally in the first half-hour of the "Today" show, said Jim Simpson, vice president and general manager of local NBC affiliate KNBN.
NBC reporter Kevin Tibbles will introduce the segment live from Rapid City about 5:18 a.m. local, Simpson said, meaning East Coast audiences will see the segment at about 7:18 a.m. EDT. Rapid City audiences will see a delayed broadcast around 7:18 a.m. local time.
Tibbles was in Rapid City in May to record the program, which touches on the disaster that claimed 238 lives as well as the recovery. Barnett said he hopes national audiences see a flourishing Rapid City that continues to learn and recover from the flood.
“I think they’ll say that Rapid City has come a long ways,” he said.
Barnett was first interviewed for "Today" on the Wednesday after the Friday night flood. "Today" anchor John Palmer was in Rapid City to report on the flood, one of dozens of national media crews that came to town, Barnett said.
The day before the interview, Barnett met with business leaders, who feared for the local economy if tourists canceled their trips before a state advertising campaign could come out to let them know South Dakota was still open for business. He told them he would try to get in a word about tourism. As it turned out, he got more than that.
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After a few tough questions about the cause of the flood and whether the city was adequately prepared, Palmer asked about tourism, and Barnett said he got “a full seven minutes,” out of an 11-minute total interview, of boosterism about the state’s beauty and tourism opportunities.
Then, after a commercial break, Barnett was stunned when producers asked him to stay on for another 11 minutes — an eternity in today’s television time — and he again invited tourists to visit the area.
When he got to city hall after the interview, his office was inundated with phone calls, both from grateful business owners and from Americans interested in Rapid City.
One call that came a few days later was from Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley.
“He said, ‘Hey Barnett, how ya doin’ out there?’ He was real gruff and tough, and he said, ‘How can I help you?’”
Daley offered a fire truck, but Barnett didn’t need it.
“I said, ‘I need tourism.’ I said, ‘Mayor, would you go on TV in Chicago and tell people to take their vacation to South Dakota?’”
Daley did it, and a year later, Barnett and then-Gov. Dick Kneip flew to Chicago in a state plane to deliver to Daley a plaque thanking him for his help.
This year, Barnett said, Rapid City and its tourism industry are thriving under a new generation of business leaders.
“The recovery didn’t just happen in the summer of 1972; the recovery goes on and on,” he said.