By Ben Welter
Heavy rains triggered flash floods in the Black Hills of South Dakota on the night of June 9, 1972. More than 230 people were killed, 3,000 were injured and thousands more were left homeless. More than 15 inches of rain fell near Nemo, and across the region downpours produced record floods along Battle, Spring, Rapid, and Box Elder Creeks.
Rapid City, then a community of about 43,000 people, was hardest hit. A 4-foot wall of water swept down Rapid Creek after an earthen dam at Canyon Lake Park gave way late Friday, June 9. On Saturday, the Tribune dispatched a team of reporters and photographers to the stricken region, about 600 miles west of Minneapolis. Bob Hagen filed this sidebar for the Sunday paper.
Residents had only minutes to flee when dam broke — some didn’t make it
By Robert Hagen
Rapid City, S.D.
When Canyon Lake Park Dam in Rapid City broke Friday night, residents along Riverdell Drive had only minutes to reach safety — for some of them, it wasn’t time enough.
The horseshoe-shaped, two-block residential area adjoining Canyon Lake Park below the dam took the brunt of the flood.
|Cars were stuck in the mud bed of Canyon Lake, which was drained when Canyon Lake Park Dam broke. Flash floods in the region destroyed an estimated 5,000 cars. (Minneapolis Tribune photo)|
Craig Willan, a student at Colorado State College of Mines, was at the dam at 10:30 p.m. Friday helping to clear the spillway of debris floating down Rapid Creek.
“A dock tore loose, then about four or five boats wedged into the spillway behind the dock,” he said. “We tried to unplug the dam up, but our winch broke and at about 11 p.m. the fire department said to get out of there.”
Willan said the water poured over the 500-foot earth and rock structure and began breaking it apart near the spillway.
Most of the residents of Riverdell Drive were making ready for bed. Mr. and Mrs. Ray Stevens and their four children tried to escape the flood in their car but it began filling up with water before they had gone a block.
“It was a terrible roar, just like the Colorado River. People were screaming and shouting, and junk and houses were floating down the street,” Mrs. Stevens said. “It was raining heavily and there were no lights except for the lightning.”
The Stevens family eventually made it to the roof of a nearby house, where they stayed until early morning with 10 other people.
The Stevens’s teenage daughter Teresa said, “There was one man on the roof with us and he saw his wife across the street. She was screaming for him. I hear her shout, “Oh, my god.’ And then she was swept away. He yelled for her all night long. It was terrible — I thought it was the end of the world.”
Up Riverdell Drive, Fred Reed, 83, and his wife, Della, 79, saw water rising rapidly in their backyard. Reed grabbed rugs and blankets and stuffed them under the cracks of the doors of his house.
“The current was so bad that I was afraid to go outside in it,” he said. “It was about 5 to 6 feet deep– about half way up my back door, so that I didn’tdare go outside.”
Reed, who wears a hearing aide, added, “That water going by was the loudest thing I’ve ever heard. There were houses floating by my back window, and I wasn’t about to go outside.”
Dorrance Dusek went to help a crippled neighbor, who feared might be carried away by the water. Dusek waded through the waist-deep water to a neighboring house, and save two boys who were trapped there.
Dusek was caught in the current and swept along for two blocks before he managed to grab onto the corner of a house. He hung on until an occupant pulled him inside.
Many of the residents of the area heard the warnings that were broadcast urging persons living along the creek to get to higher ground. They complied. People in the neighborhood were uncertain about how many of their neighbors had been killed in the flood. Several persons are still missing.
Others, like Don Carrier, were just lucky. Carrier, who bought a house about 100 feet from the creek about three months ago, came home at about 10:30 p.m. Friday. He decided to take his wife and child uptown for refreshments. He wasn’t home when the flood hit his house. He and his family spent the night sleeping in his car.
“People always say this is the high-class area, that it’s supposed to be the ritzy section of town,” he said. “Will, I tell you, there are some other parts of town that are looking pretty good about now. Nobody’s going to sell me a house near a river again.
“That sure taught me a lesson.”
|A man struggled through knee-deep water in a residential section of Rapid City, S.D. (Minneapolis Tribune photo)|