That dark, dark night, as he sat on the roof of a neighbor's house, Wayne Piebenga assumed the worst.
His wife and two oldest daughters had probably been swept away by the raging waters, a creek that a day earlier burbled peacefully 50 yards from their home on Woodland Drive, east of Sheridan Lake Road.
“I was only a block and a half from our house. I couldn't see it,” said Piebenga, now 75. “I assumed it was gone.”
Clinging to life
Down the street, his 13-year-old daughter, Cheryl, prayed.
She, too, was perched atop a roof with her mother, grandfather and older sister, chased up there by the floodwaters that had already consumed the lower level of their split-foyer house.
She hadn't seen her father since he left with her oldest brother to try to rescue a neighbor's children. Her three youngest siblings were with their grandmother on State Street.
“We heard screams,” said Cheryl Lucas, now 53. “We'd see people float by through our backyard and there was nothing we could do.”
Helpless, she watched as her neighbor, Lowell Dieter, a professor at South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, float away with his wife and daughter Patricia after the fence they were clinging to gave way.
Later, she learned that only Mrs. Dieter survived.
“I can hear the crushing of a redwood fence when I think about it,” Lucas said.
The morning after
By the time the water began to recede the morning of June 10, 1972, 238 people had perished. The damage to residential and commercial property would soon reach $66 million in Rapid City alone.
More than 1,300 homes had been destroyed, another 2,800 damaged. Thirty-six businesses were gone, another 236 heavily hit. A staggering 5,000 vehicles would never be driven again.
Total damage throughout the Black Hills hit $165 million.
For Piebenga and his daughter, the family was finally reunited sometime that morning, all six children and both parents alive.
“I remember the next day just looking around the yard and looking at the house,” Piebenga said. “What do you do? Where do you start?”
Thousands of people were facing the same question as the community arose from its worst night in history, the 40th anniversary of which will be commemorated this weekend.
But recover Rapid City did, with the help of its residents, civic leaders, charitable groups, state and federal government agencies and private donors from near and far.
Within a matter of months, most of the debris had been cleared away. Within a matter of years, a newcomer to Rapid City would never have known there was a flood.
More than $135 million in aid and low-interest loans poured into Rapid City after the flood, allowing displaced residents to find new homes, businesses to reopen and infrastructure to be rebuilt.
A $48 million urban-renewal grant laid the foundation for the flood's lasting legacy — an eight-mile ribbon of green parkland along Rapid Creek's banks, where no resident will live again.
“Rapid City is a poster child for how to manage a floodplain," said city building official Brad Solon, who is also a certified floodplain manager. "A lot of towns would love to have all that development out of the floodplain. Ours is park land."
Don Barnett, who was 29 and the mayor of Rapid City in 1972, said the common denominator guiding him and other city officials through the recovery was simple.
“The first goal of the city council was to provide economic help to the survivors,” Barnett said as he reflected on those first days after the flood. “The second was, how do we prevent this damn thing from happening again?”
He'll never forget
Forty years later, Barnett can still picture the scene at Roosevelt Park that night.
Water spread a half-mile wide, a large mobile home park right there on the creek.
There was nothing they could do but watch and listen to the screams.
“A mobile home would come off its foundation, and it would go against the bridge on Omaha Street, and then the water would be diverted,” Barnett said. “The water might shoot a block and a half out of the floodplain until the mobile home would disintegrate. Then, four or five more mobile homes would come down.”
“It was just out of Dante's Inferno,” he said, referring to the epic poem about the seven circles of hell. “It was just terrible.”
The next morning, city and county officials gathered at the Pennington County Courthouse to begin assessing the damage.
It was the county that oversaw the initial rescue and recovery efforts, including the identification of bodies, Barnett said.
Meanwhile, The Salvation Army had set up in the old city auditorium, serving a total of 179,994 meals, 48,384 snacks, 26,361 cups of coffee and 51,856 bottles of soft drinks to flood survivors by early August. Other charitable groups, including the American Red Cross and Mennonite Disaster Service, were not far behind.
The city's top priority was getting basic infrastructure restored, the most important of which was drinking water, Barnett said.
The municipal water system had been flooded out, the intake system of the treatment plant on Mountain View Road damaged after gravel and debris was sucked inside during the floodwater's surge.
But millions of gallons of potable water remained in the city's reservoirs, Barnett said, and for the better part of a week, the South Dakota National Guard distributed it using tanker trucks stationed at points around town.
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By Thursday of the following week, after days of non-stop work, residents could drink water from their taps again, Barnett said.
Federal officials from Denver arrived in Rapid City by midday on Saturday, less than 24 hours after the flood began, and President Richard Nixon declared the four affected counties — Pennington, Meade, Custer and Lawrence — a federal disaster area.
On Sunday night, they said they were ready to start bringing in new mobile homes to repair the damaged parks along the creek.
But in what became the guiding verse of the city's recovery, Leonard Swanson, the public works director at the time, told the other officials in no uncertain terms the plan was not going to work, Barnett said. Swanson died in 2008.
“Swanny said no. 'We cannot sentence the survivors to one more night on the suicidal floodplain,''' Barnett said.
The Rapid City Council unanimously agreed.
“That was a long-term, eternal answer,” Barnett said. “That was the first moment of wisdom in the recovery.”
Twenty-four hours later, the city council made its second major decision of the recovery.
In an unanimous vote, aldermen agreed the city would not issue building permits to repair any structure that was more than 50 percent damaged in the flood.
Larry Lytle, the council president in 1972, spent the first day after the flood leading search-and-rescue efforts on the west side, one of the areas hardest hit by the disaster.
The group of volunteers chose Meadowbrook School as their home base, scooping out of a foot of mud from the gymnasium floor before the search began.
“We were finding the same bodies over and over again. People were going into shock,” Lytle said. “I commandeered a covered trailer — I had someone get it from U-Haul — and when we found a body, we put it in the covered trailer.”
When it came time to make those early policy decisions, Lytle said, they were difficult but necessary choices for the council, even as lawsuits started to pile up.
“It was clear to the council that we could never let this type of disaster happen in Rapid City again,” Lytle said. “In order to prevent that, we had to let the water through. We had to make way for it.”
But when the federal agencies descended on Rapid City in the days after the flood, it soon became a confusing mess for local officials, Barnett said.
Finally, Barnett said he asked the regional director of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to return to Denver and not come back until he had a more solid plan for the community.
That happened by week's end in what city officials at the time called the “napkin plan,” Barnett said.
As initially sketched out on a napkin, the Mountain Plains Council of Federal Agencies, a consortium of 16 federal offices in Denver, would work collaboratively with a four-county disaster board to oversee recovery efforts. Local officials would maintain control over the long-term recovery of their communities.
Over the next few months, Rapid City began to flesh out what that recovery would look like.
By that point, Barnett said, city officials had already started discussing the possibility of buying out every property owner along the creek and converting the land into open recreational space.
The funding for relocation came in the form of a $48 million urban-renewal grant from HUD. All told, the city paid 1,300 property owners in the newly mapped urban floodplain a total of $33.6 million, ranging from $525 to $800,000. The grant also provided flood victims with $10.6 million in moving expenses to find new homes.
Rapid City was also included in the 1972 Federal Disaster Recovery Act, which allowed flood victims to receive a total of $63.5 million in direct loans from the Small Business Administration at 1 percent interest with a 30-year term.
Barnett said by that time, most of the cleanup had been completed, and it was those loans that helped survivors pay off the mortgages on the homes that were destroyed and buy new homes on higher ground.
“By November, we had it together. It all occurred between June 9 and Election Day,” Barnett said. “We made our first payment to somebody who had rented an apartment on Nov. 25.”
Millions of other dollars also flowed into the community in the coming years, including $6 million from the South Dakota Department of Transportation to replace five major bridges, $3.3 million from the Office of Emergency Preparedness to repair roads and other bridges and $1.6 million from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for channelization and dikes on Rapid Creek near Baken Park.
Private donations streamed in, as well, with one organization, the Rapid City Area Disaster Foundation, receiving more than $1.4 million in the seven months before it disbanded. The foundation gave each person in the flood $50, also providing money for funeral expenses, to replace belongings and help reopen businesses.
Forty years later, Lytle said, Rapid City is as safe as it can be.
“I would feel no qualms about living on lower ground,” said Lytle, who lives on the hillside above Canyon Lake in one of the many homes built after the flood. “We’ve done really well in being able to get the water through the city. It might get a little in your basement, but I don’t think we’d lose any lives.”
For the Piebenga family, recovery meant a summer of hard work, scooping muck out of their home's lower level.
“We hated every bucket of that,” Cheryl Lucas said.
“The kids' rooms — we lost everything,” said Joni Maliske, 50, who was 10 in 1972. “We didn't have any clothes.”
They stayed on Woodland Drive for about a year until the city said they had to leave the floodplain, Lucas said. With the help of a 1 percent loan, they bought a new house on Dunsmore Road, far away from Rapid Creek.
They moved the old house to the campground on U.S. Highway 16 operated by their grandparents.
The old neighborhood is a grassy open space across the street from Storybook Island.
“The one thing I think about when I think about the flood is the government was really good. The city government was good. The federal government was good, the Corps of Engineers, the National Guard,” Wayne Piebenga said. “Everyone just chipped in.”