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Memories sharp, emotions strong for those who lived through 1972 flood

Tears glistened in Don Barnett’s eyes as he stood on the city bike path near Rapid Creek and remembered the horrors of that night 40 years earlier.

There, just downstream from the Omaha Street bridge, a woman who had been swept down in raging flood waters from somewhere upstream was clinging to a tree as a rope crew with the South Dakota National Guard tried to save her.

They could not.

“Oh, it was so bad down here. The water was so deep and fast, and it was so cold,” said Barnett, who was Rapid City’s 29-year-old mayor on June 9, 1972, the night the flood hit. “A young guardsman got to within 10 or 12 feet of that woman, and then she just couldn’t hold on. And she was gone. And he was devastated. That’s when I knew it was going to get bad.”

It got worse in ways that Barnett and others caught up in the flood could not have imagined. Before the carnage of that tortured night was over in Rapid City -- and nearby towns that were hit by the flooding -- 238 people were dead and more than 3,000 were injured.

Less horrific but still staggering was the toll on property: 1,300 homes destroyed, 2,800 more damaged, and an overall damage estimate of $165 million.

The numbers never left Don Barnett’s mind, even after he moved on from the mayor’s job and into a life that would eventually take him from Rapid City.

In his heart, he never got far from the community he led through its darkest times or the wounded memories of the Black Hills flood of 1972. The vivid recollections are especially sharp now as he and others with stories to tell count down the days until the 40th anniversary of the flood.

“The tears come right now,” Barnett said. “It doesn’t take much to provoke a tear, even 40 years later.”

What happened that night left much for many to cry about. Few know that better than Rick Morrow, who was 14 and living with his family in a house on Franklin Drive, just south of Jackson Boulevard, when the flood hit.

“We were right in the heart of it, unfortunately,” Morrow, now 54, said by phone from Phoenix where he works as a ticket broker.

Morrow and his sister, Teri, their 76-year-old father, Fred, and a friend of Teri’s were in the house expecting an uneventful Friday evening when the water came rushing into their neighborhood. They tried to leave the home at about 10:40 p.m. but couldn’t get the car through the water. So they hurried back in the house, where they were soon joined by others. Many others.

Fifteen to 20 panic-stricken people sought shelter in the Morrow house, as the single-story, three-bedroom home quickly began to fill with water. Morrow and the others clambered up on counters, tables, the washer and the dryer as the water rose and rose and rose.

Morrow remembers being neck deep in the coldest water he had ever felt. He feared the end was near.

“I thought, ‘My God, we’re going to drown,’” he said.

That’s when the force of the water pushed the house off the foundation, sending it turning and bobbing “like a pontoon” and coming apart with sounds he’ll never forget.

“It sounded like bombs going off as the house started to break up,” he said. “I managed to surface out of the debris, but I got separated from my father.”

He would never see his father alive again. But he would see his sister, who was on a nearby house. A stand of huge trees offered it some protection from the flood and it withstood the stress. A man reached down as Morrow struggled against the swirling water and helped him onto the roof.

There he had a shivering reunion with his sister. Her friend, however, didn’t make it.

Morrow said he struggles to this day to understand why he made it out when his father and so many others didn’t. He said he has come to accept the losses he suffered that day, less than a year after his mother died of cancer.

And he has returned from time to time to enjoy golf on Meadowbrook Golf Course and its winding stretch of Rapid Creek. But he is selective about where he lives.

“I have never lived near water since,” he said.

Even those who were spared direct family losses in many cases came away with near-miss stories that will be remembered in the coming days.

Rapid City lawyer Mike DeMersseman lost a Republican U.S. House primary to Jim Abdnor three days before the flood. DeMersseman and friends had gathered for a campaign “wake” when someone at the party got called to his place of business near the creek west of the gap.

DeMersseman and a friend were giving the man a ride out there, behind a police car, when the police car and their Cadillac “started to float” as water rushed across Omaha. They had to leave the vehicles, putting them in the unruly water.

“You’d try to stand up in the water and you just couldn’t,” DeMerrseman said. “Even though it was only about three feet deep there was so much stuff in it that you’d just kind of roll.”

Tom Hennies, an officer in the squad car who would later become chief of police and a state legislator, called in a fire truck by radio. The group climbed onto the truck, which backed all the way to West Boulevard and higher ground. DeMersseman and others hung on, looking off toward even worse conditions closer to the creek.

“You could see over there that gas pipes had broken and some little house was burning,” he said. “And the noise was amazing. You wouldn’t think of a flood as noisy. But you could hear the creak of the wood separating, the hissing of propane tanks or gas.”

DeMersseman ended up downtown where he offered help where he could, including giving reports to KOTA radio on what was going on at the courthouse. By dawn, the extent of the losses was becoming clear.

“It was daylight, and the bodies were being found,” he said.

Most of the casualties were in Rapid City, when the normally docile Rapid Creek became a raging river of destruction, tearing through the heart of the community.

But other creeks went wild as well, spreading property damage and death across the front range of the Black Hills. A stalled storm of monstrous proportions dumped more than 10 inches of rain over a 60-square-mile area, with downpours even greater near Nemo and other areas.

Battle, Box Elder, Grizzly, Bear Butte and other creeks rose quickly, ran fast and hit hard, chasing the lucky ones to higher ground or safe shelter and overwhelming those who couldn’t escape.

Dawn came under a gray pall of fog along the front range of the hills. And it was particularly gloomy in Rapid City, where Barnett saw what seemed like “a fog of death across the city.”

That wouldn’t last long, however. Even as people began showing up at government offices to report missing people, the sun was coming out. And after the worst night in Rapid City history, people were uniting to continue rescue work and begin recovery.

“At first, that Saturday morning I saw hopelessness and despair on everybody’s face,” Barnett said. “And by Monday, that hopelessness had turned to a question: ‘How are we going to do this?’”

Helping find the answers was the focus of Barnett’s job as mayor in the coming weeks and months. But he wasn’t alone. As city officials hustled to return essential services to the community and maintain safety and security, the county took on the grueling and gruesome duty of overseeing rescue and recovery efforts.

“Under state law, Civil Defense – now they call it Emergency Management – took on the responsibility of managing the disaster, with the body search, body count and other duties, including county roads and bridges,” Barnett said. “The city responsibilities then were streets, water, sewer, fire, police, getting things going again.”

State and federal officials rushed to Rapid City to provide assistance, all under a spirit of cooperation that turned multiple levels of government and uncounted officials into one team.

Among those who rushed to help was George McGovern, then a Democratic U.S. senator from South Dakota, who broke off from his 1972 presidential campaign to fly to Rapid City.

“We canceled our schedule and headed for Rapid,” McGovern said. “That’s the only thing I wanted to do as a senator from South Dakota, was be there to see how we could help.”

The help began almost immediately as private donations began to arrive along with even larger government assistance.

“Everybody pulled together, and we got substantial help. I was amazed at it, really,” McGovern said. “There’s something about a flood, which everyone knows is beyond the control of anyone, that gets response – even from the bureaucrats in Washington.”

Van Lindquist was a state planning official in Pierre with expertise in working with those bureaucrats. On the evening after the flood, he was sent to Rapid City by Gov. Richard Kneip to coordinate recovery efforts.

Lindquist had experience and contacts with federal officials that would prove essential.

“My whole time out here was trying to cut red tape and expedite the flood recovery,” said Lindquist, who would stay on in Rapid City after the initial stages of recovery, joining a regional planning district.

The different governmental agencies reached a consensus that the federal government would take the lead in short-term recovery, but long-term recovery would be shaped by local officials.

“That was one of the most critical things, that cooperation between the federal, state and local levels of government,” Lindquist said.

That local direction and strong community support helped Rapid City turn a ravaged stretch of Rapid Creek running for about eight miles through town into a greenway, with parks, a bike path and plenty of open public space.

A $48 million federal urban-renewal grant was the foundation for the work. It allowed the city to buy property in the floodplain and help with moving expenses so that flood victims could find new homes.

In addition, those acquired properties were classified as dedicated park land, meaning anytime an alternate use was proposed, it would face a public vote. Lindquist said that was a “brilliant move” that will help keep the floodplain free of inappropriate construction.

That could be especially important as the years pass and fewer and fewer people remain with direct connections to the flood, he said.

“We’re losing the people who remember what happened in '72,” Lindquist said. “And this town doesn’t ever want to go through that again.”

Contact Kevin Woster at 394-8413 or

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