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NPR News

South Dakota residents reflect on one of the nation's deadliest floods

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Last year, I went for a run while visiting Rapid City, S.D. I ran this path along Rapid Creek in the middle of town. The riverside path led through green parkland, which, according to a sign, used to be neighborhoods until a flood destroyed them 50 years ago. Seth Tupper of South Dakota Public Broadcasting reports on what that flood changed.

SETH TUPPER, BYLINE: On a June night in 1972, up to 15 inches of rain fell on the Black Hills. It collected in Rapid Creek and roared downhill straight into Rapid City, where thousands of homes and businesses stood in the floodplain. Mayor Don Barnett was on the west side of town where the creek flows into a lake talking with a utility crew as the water rose.

DON BARNETT: All the men and I were standing around, and we heard this crunch, and the Canyon Lake bridge floated into Canyon Lake.

TUPPER: Barnett's friend was supervising the crew.

BARNETT: He said, Mayor, somebody could get killed in this damn thing. And I said, I'm going to go put the warning out absolutely right now.

TUPPER: He rushed to a pay phone and called local broadcaster Robb DeWall.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBB DEWALL: Rapid City Mayor Don Barnett said a few minutes ago - that's been about 10:40 p.m. - that any citizens living on property abutting Rapid Creek should leave immediately. He said all of those properties throughout the city should be abandoned.

TUPPER: It was too late. A flood surge ruptured the Canyon Lake Dam.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUSHING WATER)

TUPPER: Standing alongside the creek today, Robbie Corner remembers being a teenager out with friends that night in 1972. When they got to his house, it was surrounded by deep water, with his mother and some neighbors inside.

ROBBIE CORNER: Houses started washing by where we were standing there, and propane tanks were hitting trees and exploding. And people were on the roofs of the houses that were floating by, and they were screaming. You know, we could just see there's no way we're going to be able to get to the house and hoped that they had gotten out of there while we were gone.

TUPPER: In the morning, there was nothing left of his mother's home. Her body was found several miles downstream. As Pastor Ron Masters' home was flooding, he, his wife and their five kids fled in their car, but the water swept it off the road. Masters, his wife and two children got out, clinging to trees, but one son was swept away. Their three other children were trapped in the car. When morning came, it was underwater, except for the roof. Two of their sons were dead inside. But...

RON MASTERS: I heard a voice under my feet. I couldn't believe I heard a voice. And so I laid my cheek in the water, and I spoke up to the window, and I said, who is it? Who is it?

TUPPER: It was his daughter JoAnn, who survived in a small pocket of air inside the vehicle all night. In the aftermath, grim numbers piled up - 238 people dead and 3,000 injured. Sharon Weber was a nurse.

SHARON WEBER: I can still see the faces of some of those - just scared to death.

TUPPER: A couple of days after the flood, Mayor Barnett and the city council banned rebuilding in the floodplain. Later, with federal help, they'd relocate survivors in safer areas. Today, instead of thousands of homes, the banks of Rapid Creek are miles of public land and open space. Barnett says it needs to stay that way.

BARNETT: And I'm going to do - the rest of my days educating people about why it's a stupid thing to live near a creek.

TUPPER: Over the years, Barnett and other survivors have successfully fought attempts to again build near the creek. They're sharing their stories in this 50th year after the flood, hoping future generations won't repeat the mistakes of the past.

For NPR News, I'm Seth Tupper in Rapid City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.