Brad Johnson: We often invite nature's disasters, Watertown hasn't learned from Rapid City flood

·4 min read

The 1,100 homes destroyed in a recent Colorado fire fixed our gaze on the destruction that occurs when we build in places best left untouched.

We blame these disasters on climate change, but often they are the result of poor land-use decisions.

The fire caused me to reminisce about two anniversaries. It is 25 years since the April 1997 Watertown flood. It is 50 years since the June 9-10, 1972, Rapid City flood.

That Rapid Creek flood can be relived through a just-released book, "Thorns and Roses," by former Rapid City Mayor Don Barnett. The riveting book is a must read for anyone interested in South Dakota history and real-life drama.

The newly elected Barnett was just 29 when he experienced that life-changing event.

Official reports say on the afternoon and evening of June 9, “Nearly 15 inches of rain fell in about 6 hours near Nemo, and more than 10 inches of rain fell over an area of 60 square miles. According to the Red Cross, the resulting floods left 238 people dead and 3,057 people injured.”

There was about $160 million ($1.1 billion in today's numbers) in damages, 1,335 homes and 5,000 automobiles destroyed.

Barnett had spent that Friday afternoon golfing and headed to the YMCA to meet his family. An exasperated policeman found him there and told him the National Weather Service had issued a high-water alert for Rapid City.

The 51-square miles between Pactola Dam and Canyon Lake was funneling water toward Rapid City at an unbelievable pace.

Barnett took a call from a man near Pactola Dam,

“Mayor it’s really bad up here,” the man said. “I’ve lived here 30 years and have never seen Rapid Creek so high and wild. It is damn near flooding my house right now. My wife and kids are climbing up the side of a big hill near the creek. I think they’ll make it. Put out the warning right now, Mr. Mayor!?”

Barnett and a couple other officials and National Guardsmen headed toward Canyon Lake along Jackson Boulevard. Water was rising quickly.

“The folks near the homes on the south side of Jackson, very close to Rapid Creek and overlooking the nine-hole golf course, stood in groups, hugged each other and screamed for help,” Barnett said. “The water on their driveways was four feet deep. It was a desperate situation. When the lightning flashed, we could see the roaring water on Jackson Boulevard was filled with floating automobiles and debris. Men and women held their children on their shoulders as the young folks screamed in terror.”

Efforts to reach the people failed, so Barnett grabbed a bullhorn to tell them to climb up to the roofs of their homes.

“As we were standing there with the water swirling around us,” Barnett wrote, “Ron grabbed the leg of a body that was floating past our position.”

About 10:45 p.m., the dam at Canyon Lake failed. Peak flows of 50,000 cubic feet per second smashed through Rapid City. That is about seven times the peak flows of Watertown’s 1997 flood when 5,000 people were evacuated.

Then came the call no mayor wants to hear. “Terrible news, Mr. Mayor. We might have lost three firemen out by Canyon Lake,” he wrote. “I closed my eyes.”

As cleanup and rescue efforts continued, Barnett encountered Dr. Larry Lytle, the city council president and deputy mayor, “leading a group of volunteers carrying several bodies. The policeman opened the trailer door. The volunteers and Larry laid eight bodies inside.

"These people were my neighbors, some of them old friends, whose last moments went from the peace of a Friday night dinner to the chaos, sorrow and despair of the raging flood.”

The following Monday, the council met to discuss rebuilding, and Public Works Director Leonard Swanson was adamant that no rebuilding occur in the flood plain. Doing so, he said, “will be absolute nonsense and premeditated suicide for future generations.”

That led to the creation of the six-mile greenway along Rapid Creek.

While Rapid City decided to avoid building in flood plains, Watertown is taking the opposite approach – filling flood plains and placing buildings in them at a quick pace.

There will come a day when we may look to Rapid City and wished we had learned.

Brad Johnson is a Watertown businessman and journalist who is active in state and local affairs.

This article originally appeared on Watertown Public Opinion: Watertown should learn from 1972 Rapid City flood

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