Watery Disaster Strikes Rapid City
“THE probability of that much rainfall and those particular weather conditions can be expected once in a hundred years,” said Elroy Balke, hydrologist at Kansas City’s Weather Service Office. But those weather conditions occurred June 9, 1972, and the improbable became a reality for the citizens of Rapid City, South Dakota.
The weather that morning showed no signs of impending disaster. It was hot and muggy. There were signs of rain, but rain was not unusual at that time of year. So the people went about their business as usual.
The Unlikely Happens
Toward evening, a ground wind blowing westward met clouds coming from the northeast. For a while, the resultant turbulence remained stationary over the city. Then the turbulence shifted to the west of the city. There it poured out rain in sheets.
Normally placid streams turned into gushing, raging torrents. In a short time from five to seven inches of rain fell in places. All of it had to drain into the creek that winds its way through Rapid City. This meant trouble. The creek rose to flood stage, and several bridges were washed out.
This dangerous situation worsened when the storm began to move again in a normal direction, turning eastward back over Rapid City. It added three more inches of rain.
The Dam Gives Way
Canyon Lake Dam, located west of the city, had, in the meantime, come under great pressure because of the storm. Debris got caught in its gates and clogged its spillway. The level of water began rising ominously.
The dam had been regularly inspected by officials. They pronounced it safe. But that was under normal conditions. Now things were different, dangerously different! From areas above the dam two waves of water swept down. The dam withstood the first one. But the second one was disastrous!
Water began flowing over the dam’s grassy top. As it did, it ate away the fill on the dam’s back side, weakening it. At midnight, a chunk the size of a football field broke away.
Below the dam lived many people. Their homes received the full force of the water that now crashed down upon them. Automobiles, house trailers, machines, homes and trees were swished along in its wake as the gigantic torrent sped with the momentum of a freight train through Rapid City. Its path of destruction ran eight miles long.
Radio and television stations went dead as electrical power was put out of commission. This cut off the source of communication that, up to that time, had been informing the people about the unfolding watery disaster striking their community.
But the break in the dam did not catch people completely off guard. An unidentified man eighteen miles west of the city telephoned the mayor and said, “Mr. Mayor, it looks to me like you’ve got 20 minutes.” Immediately an order was sent out to warn the people living along the creek to leave their homes. Policemen and National Guardsmen called at the homes of those threatened. Also, automobiles that were heading toward the danger zone were turned back. Many lives were reportedly saved by the efforts of men who braved the driving rain.
“Like a War Zone”
It was estimated that the rate of water flowing in Rapid Creek at its flood height was over ten times the previous record. The creek normally discharges 1.7 thousand million gallons of water per day, but at 1:00 a.m. the flow was estimated to be 19 thousand million gallons!
By the time the rain stopped, the next morning, a total of up to ten inches had fallen over the area. The floodwaters then began subsiding. Rapid City was a scene of devastation and carnage. Fires were raging out of control. The smell of propane gas hung heavy in the air from the mobile homes and several propane gas trucks that had been crushed by the force of the water.
A newspaper reporter at the scene remarked: “It’s like a war zone. There are fires all over the place and nothing can be done about it because the city has been cut in half by the flooding of Rapid Creek.” By the afternoon of the next day most of these fires were brought under control.
The New York Times of June 12, 1972, reported that the mayor said that “300 homes had been ripped from their foundations and were unusable, that three city parks had been destroyed, 80 blocks of street paving destroyed, seven of nine bridges over Rapid Creek demolished, 5.5 miles of railroad track washed out, and hundreds of buildings filled with mud and water.”
The damage to property ran to 120 million dollars. Over 225 persons lost their lives.
Many had frightening experiences. One man walked out to a nearby bridge. He saw a four-foot band of water coming down the creek with a blue house trailer riding its crest like a surfboard. Another man said: “I was looking out a window when I saw the water come over the creek bank. I grabbed my wife and we got out of there.”
In one trailer court two hundred trailers were swept away. The only other trailer in this court was moved forty feet and tipped over. “My mother and I just got out with the clothes on our backs,” observed the owner.
One of Jehovah’s witnesses was getting ready to go to bed. Suddenly she noticed that her mobile home was beginning to rock. She dashed outside and saw the rising water. Quickly, she fled to higher ground where she watched the gushing torrent pick up her trailer home and car and carry them downstream.
A woman already asleep was awakened by sirens blaring in the city. She went next door and brought an elderly woman living there to her home. Then the two of them plus the dog climbed on top of a six-foot rolltop desk to await rescue. A flashlight that was in the desk drawer helped to save their lives. They kept flashing it until someone outside saw it and rescued them.
Concern for Others
The public joined in with the authorities in kindly giving a helping hand to many other folks in distress. Many showed concern by sharing in efforts to rescue people from housetops, trees and other places of refuge. And the victims of the disaster were put up in city facilities, schools, and the National Guard Armory. Food and clothing were contributed. And many offered to take various-sized families into their homes.
The ministers having oversight of the local congregation of Jehovah’s witnesses showed great concern about the persons in their care. They tried to get in touch with them by telephone to see how they were. But the lines were jammed. There was as much as a ten-minute wait for a dial tone. So these ministers worked out a system of reporting their findings to the presiding minister. His phone would be open to receive their calls the first thirty minutes of each hour and the last thirty minutes would be for his making outgoing calls. Thus it was learned how each one in the congregation fared. Anyone who was in immediate need was given prompt care.
But what about those who could not be telephoned? They were personally called on. Thus it was learned that only one person in the congregation was in the hospital, and that five Witness families had lost homes or possessions. The rest were safe, though several of them had some harrowing experiences.
Adult male Witnesses went to the damaged homes of various Witnesses to help them salvage things. This took effort but it was worth while. Not only that, but concerned Witnesses in Pennsylvania, Florida, California and other states in between called to offer their assistance.
What Can We Learn?
There is much that we can learn from the experiences of those caught in a disaster. First is the need to be alert and anticipate the possible makings of a disaster. Also, the importance of heeding warnings given by policemen, city officials or any others who are in a position to know. Some folks from Rapid City are dead because they refused to respond to the warnings that were given them.
And if you survive a disaster, it is a kindness to get in touch with loved ones as soon as possible. This will spare them unnecessary worry and anxiety.
The day is near when disasters like the one that struck Rapid City will be a thing of the past. Mankind will live securely under a divine government whose authorities will keep watch over its citizens and their loved ones. That is the comforting message of Jehovah’s witnesses. It is found in your own Bible!—Rev. 21:4.