Jim Kuehn


Written Memory


June 16, 2009


The June 9, 1972, flood along Rapid Creek and several other Hills streams became a disaster that left 238 people dead. It is deeply etched in the minds of those who survived it or witnessed the hideous aftermath.

The 25th anniversary this year (1997) will resurrect memories and, for many, reopen wounds caused by the deaths of loved ones. The destruction was incredible. Stories of terror and heroism were legion. The good to come from it was a massive multi-million dollar urban renewal project that resulted in a beautiful greenway and, ultimately, a safer, stronger community.

Nearly everyone in Rapid City was affected by what happened that Friday night in June. The Kuehns were no exception.

Clouds building all afternoon loomed large and dark, seemingly unable to move eastward against westerly winds. Stagnating over the Hills, the storm system started releasing heavy surges of rain shortly before 6 p.m. After dinner, Yvonne and I drove to Stevens High School where a band from Germany, here for Rapid City's annual band festival, was scheduled to perform. The sun had managed to break through, but it was obvious more rain was to come.

At intermission, someone at the microphone advised the audience that Rapid Creek was rising rapidly and waters were beginning to threaten some bridges. Many people left then. We stayed to the end of the program only to find that the most direct way home across Rapid Creek was cut off. We traveled an alternate route and pulled into our driveway in the midst of a pounding downpour.

Newscasters at 10 p.m. reported flooding in western Rapid City, with people in Dark Canyon and above Canyon Lake trying to cope with severe problems. Evacuation had started, but some living in the deep canyons were trapped. Lives were being lost as rising torrents swept away houses and vehicles.

Yvonne had night duty at Bennett-Clarkson Hospital, about a mile away, and left for work shortly before 11 p.m. A friend of Deb's followed Yvonne in his car to make sure she arrived safely. She parked behind the hospital minutes before flood waters slammed into Sioux Park adjacent to the hospital. Our Plymouth and dozens of other cars were tossed about. Some were overturned or carried away. Ours wedged against the wall by the hospital's back door.

Water, mud and debris dumped into the basement of the hospital, creating a crisis for Yvonne and everyone in the facility. Power went out and lights from flashlights revealed water covering the first floor.

In the face of great difficulty, patient care continued but evacuation would be necessary when daylight came. During this wild and violent night, Yvonne and others heard cries for help from people fighting for their lives in boiling flood waters only yards away. There was no way to help victims struggling against powerful, churning forces or riding on rooftops of floating structures.

Our family was dispersed. Doug was in Great Falls, Montana, were he was stationed at Malmstrom Air Force Base. Diana was with her Uncle Al and Aunt Avis at Lake Madison in eastern South Dakota.

Shortly after 11 p.m. Deb and I were in the dark at 2017 Selkirk Place, listening to reports on a battery-powered radio and watching skies filled with rain and the glow of fires burning along the floodway. Propane containers had broken loose and numerous mobile homes were consumed by fire and rushing water.

Around midnight I carefully drove side streets to reach the 7-11 Store on Jackson Boulevard. Dozens of people were milling around in the parking lot, telling about their escape or upset about people they could not reach only a block or so away. The water's continuous roar and the general commotion were frightening.

My reconnaissance was limited because travel toward the hospital was out off. In the opposite direction, toward the bridge over Rapid Creek, water was still overflowing Jackson Boulevard a block from our old house on Dundee Street. Flashes of lightning revealed two houses sitting cockeyed on Jackson Boulevard, not far from the bridge over Rapid Creek. Behind our Selkirk address, water perhaps a foot deep covered Central Boulevard.

Telephone service was lost, so there was no way for me to communicate with my news staff. Seasoned veterans among them needed no instructions. One reporter living near Rapid Creek in the downtown area lost everything, but walked to the Journal. Ace photographer Don Polovich somehow made his way through upstream damage to begin a spectacular photo record.

Through fog and smoke, dawn came slowly on Saturday, June 10. The air was acrid and fouled by smells of death and sewage and various unidentifiable odors. Sounds included chain saws, heavy equipment, vehicles moving in all directions, people shouting.

Assuming correctly that Yvonne's shift at the hospital would be prolonged, I left Deb in charge at home and picked my way to the Journal building (none of that area on Main Street was damaged). I was stunned by what I saw while traveling on Jackson and on Mountain View past the broken nursing home. Wrecked vehicles and debris prevented me from going to the corner of Main and Mountain View, so I returned to Jackson to travel on West Main through the Gap. Hours before, oars had stalled here and people had to wade to higher ground.

The problems facing the Rapid City Journal would fill a chapter by itself. For the first time in memory, we could not publish because gas lines were severed, leaving hardened lead in our Linotypes and casting machines. Propane gas tanks were brought in and connections made so that we could produce a substantial Sunday issue filled with dozens of pictures, personal accounts and columns of detailed reports. We increased the press run considerably. (A week later, we printed 50,000 copies of a special souvenir edition).

The news staff performed superbly. Everywhere they looked there were stories. We sought out officials and relief workers to give perspective and relay essential data. To people needing information for crucial decisions, the Journal staff delivered facts, notices, and official announcements. There were countless public meetings to attend.

Sadly, we compiled lists of the dead and the missing, and produced dozens of obituaries. All of us, it seems, knew victims and had funerals to attend. When not on duty at the paper many of us pitched in to help where needed.

While we kept the world informed through the Associated Press, we also were host to dozens of reporters and photographers descending upon us from the major wire services, metropolitan newspapers, magazines, radio and TV stations. Many were pushy, demanding and rude, even as we allowed them the use of our dark room, desks and telephones. Others helped round out our news and photo reports and did everything possible to assist us.

Covering the first few days of the flood was, in a sense, easy because we were literally surrounded by stories and photo opportunities. Deciding what not to publish was perhaps harder than choosing what to print. Little did we realize that, as enormous as the immediate chapters were, recording the painful recovery would be a prolonged and even larger task. For our efforts we won the Inland Daily Press Association Award through the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

Before Day 1 of the aftermath was over, our house on Selkirk Place became a shelter for flood victims. Because Bennett-Clarkson Hospital had to be evacuated, Yvonne brought one mother and her hours-old infant to our house. Also joining us were a woman and her three small children who were stranded at the hospital after their car stalled in the nearby Safeway parking lot. Her husband was in another car and they had become separated--it's hard to fathom her worry. A teen-age acquaintance of Deb who could not get back to his own neighborhood found a place with us, too.

Yvonne, working nights as usual, was on duty with babies and mothers at St. John's Hospital for the next 14 nights.

By Day 2 our household grew further as the woman whose husband was missing was joined by her worried parents from Mitchell and, finally, by her husband. This couple was left with nothing more than a silver spoon from their destroyed house.

We and our 10 unexpected guests were somewhat crowded. The bathroom situation was a bit crazy. The lack of water was a major concern.
But with typical South Dakota neighborliness, that problem was alleviated by Sunday when a tank truck from Wall, 60 miles away, pulled onto Selkirk Place. Before long the water main serving Selkirk was restored. And power came on. Because our water heater was electric, we were able to wash clothes and dishes and to bathe, so we invited people from around the circle without gas service to shower at our house.

As can be imagined, Al and Avis were worried about us and what they would tell Diana the Saturday after the flood. It was virtually impossible to call into Rapid City or to get lines out. To my surprise, my Journal office phone rang. At the other end was Pat Morrison, calling from Mobridge to inquire about damage at Hisega, where the Morrison family had a cabin. Before signing off, I made Pat promise to tell my mother in Mobridge that Yvonne, Deb and I were safe. She, in turn, could tell Al and Avis. Eventually, Doug was able to call in from Great Falls.

Several days later, Al and Avis put Diana on a plane to fly home, and shortly after that Doug and Joy came to survey the damage.

One of the cruelest episodes occurred late in the afternoon of Day 1. I had walked into our old neighborhood and was commiserating with an exhausted Helen and Gene Seeley whose finished basement had been full of water. They were in a state of shock and depressed as they rested on their front step. Unexpectedly, word spread that Pactola Dam had been breached. It was only a rumor but weary survivors were in no condition to judge. I watched in amazement as Gene and Helen jumped into their car and sped away. By any means available other Lanark Road residents fled. Walking quickly toward Selkirk, I watched cars nearly collide or swerve to miss others attempting to back out of their driveways. I've never seen such panic.

God works in mysterious ways. For us, the loss of a car was like a scratch compared with pain and destruction others felt. Our situation would have been considerably different--perhaps even fatal--if it were not for our decision in 1971 to sell our house on Dundee Street. Yvonne had wanted a better kitchen, I needed a garage, and so we decided to relocate rather than to remodel our 177year-old house. Nine months before the flood, we bought a house that we had admired since it had been shown as a Better Homes & Gardens model home--only about three blocks as the crow flies away from Dundee but considerably higher above the creek.

Windows were smashed by debris-filled water that rose higher than the washer and dryer in the basement of our former Dundee residence. The lawn, garden and fence we had built were all badly damaged. Worse yet, neighbors were forced into their attics in desperate attempts to stay alive. At the lower end of Dundee and between Argyle Street and Rapid Creek, probably six people were killed or drowned. On the nearby bridge over Rapid Creek, a minister lost control of his Jeep that was propelled into the torrent. He and his wife lived, their three children perished.

A week after the flood, people were still very much on edge. When sirens sounded in the midst of another rain storm, safety was the utmost priority. We left the dinner table to find out what caused the commotion on Selkirk Place. Two doors away, people threw clothes into their car before roaring out their driveway. With them were a man and his wife who had spent the night of the flood on their roof and in a nearby tree. They were not about to be caught again. Not knowing the extent of this emergency, we, too, got into our car and drove to higher ground on Sheridan Lake Road. One person drowned that night; otherwise there was only minor damage to property but major stress on nerves and emotions.

As with any disaster, the survivors wonder why they were spared. Actually, Yvonne was in greater danger than she realized when she ran from her car into the back door of the hospital. Fortunately she was spared and given strength to carry on under difficult conditions at Bennett-Clarkson. Days continued long and work was stressful after the nursery reopened at St. John's Hospital.

Deb would have been in grave jeopardy that terrible night had she and a friend gone to clean a meat market on Omaha Street. Her mother told her, "You will not go clean the market tonight." The market was totally wiped out. The body count was probably highest in this area.

Indeed, for a variety of reasons, we were fortunate and blessed to have survived the flood of 1972.

Jim Kuehn



“Jim Kuehn,” Flood of 1972, accessed July 2, 2022, https://1972flood.omeka.net/items/show/549.