Three days of events June 8-10 will commemorate the heartbreak and horror of the 1972 Black Hills Flood while saluting the fortitude and resiliency that made Rapid City a model of flood recovery for the nation, the 40th anniversary committee announced Friday.
“It’s about how all of South Dakota should pause for just a moment at this 40th anniversary and think about the magnitude of the loss of lives, but also … salute the fortitude of Rapid City,” said former Rapid City Mayor Don Barnett, a committee member and the mayor who led Rapid City through the flood at the age of 29. “It was just phenomenal to stand here as mayor and watch that resilience and strength, and that’s what we intend to honor on this weekend in June here.”
The centerpiece event of the Black Hills Flood: Remembrance & Renewal weekend will be on the evening of Saturday, June 9, at Rushmore Plaza Civic Center. The two-hour event will include a look back at the destruction that claimed 238 lives and wreaked havoc in a four-county area.
Dr. Curt Paulsen, former director of the Lutheran Social Services office in Rapid City in 1972, will speak about “Death and Transformation.” On June 9, 1972, Paulsen was busy hosting a LSS seminar in Rapid City on the topic “Death and Dying,” which featured a keynote address by pioneering grief expert Elizabeth Kubler Ross.
The program will also include a talk by Dr. Larry Lytle, one of only five members of the 1972 Rapid City Common Council still living, on the renewal that sprung from the short-term and long-term post-flood policies established by city leaders.
“It’s not just a history of the flood event but a history of the recovery, too,” Barnett said. “This was a community of tremendous viability and spirit. … Although we were knocked to our knees by the loss of 238 people who perished, this community had the fortitude to bounce back.”
On Sunday, June 10, Mayor Sam Kooiker will welcome people to a community-wide memorial service at 1 p.m. at the civic center. Prayer, a scrolling of the names of flood victims and music -- from the city band, a community memorial choir, bagpipers and a Native American flutist -- will be followed by a final word from Barnett.
Letters inviting family members of at least 190 flood victims to the special events will be sent out soon. Committee members are still seeking contact information for families of other victims.
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Cost for the anniversary convocation is expected to be between $40,000 and $50,000, all of which the committee expects to pay for through private donations, Barnett said.
Interpretive signs designed to educate today’s population about the 1972 flood history are planned for 14 locations along the Rapid City greenway between Braeburn Addition to the west and the Pennington County Fairgrounds to the east, committee member Van Lindquist said. The signage is important, Lindquist said, because back in 1996, when he was involved in a battle to prevent the sale of 8 acres of public floodplain land, more than 40 percent of Rapid City residents weren’t aware of the 1972 flood history. “How much higher would that percentage be today?” he said.
The signs might not be installed in time for the 40th anniversary convocation, but a facsimile of the 3-foot by 2-foot signs, which will include historical photographs, graphics and statistical data, will be on display at the civic center.
Barnett said the anniversary committee has made it a point to remember that it wasn’t only Rapid City that went through the flood, the second deadliest flood event in American history. Only the Johnstown, Penn., flood in 1889 killed more people. More than 2,200 people reportedly died in that flood.
“There was a four-county area that experienced its death and destruction,” he said of the 1972 flood.
On Friday, the memory of that death and destruction was still fresh in Barnett’s mind as he talked about losing a friend to the floodwaters 40 years ago.
“I sat by Lowell Dieter for five years in the church choir … and on that Saturday night, I identified his body,” he said. “Take that by 238, and that’s what we’re commemorating on June 8-10.”