Ken Jacobsen


Written Memory


June 16, 2009


My name is Ken Jacobsen and I grew up in Rapid City. I was 20 when the flood happened, and like any traumatic event, some details are etched in my memory. It’s great have a chance to add them to the record and to read other peoples' accounts.

I was living not far from the creek, near First Street and Main, and working a summer job keeping the grounds up at Reptile Gardens. I remember riding to work that warm sunny morning and noticing the amazingly high humidity –the radio said it was nearly 100%, if I recall rightly, higher than I’d ever heard before.

I'm one of those people who loves a good rainstorm and I was happy to see a thunderhead building over the HIlls while I worked outside, and I can recall seeing what I assumed was the cloud-seeding plane flying in and out of the towering cloud that afternoon, hopefully guaranteeing a good rain. But rather than building up over the Hills and moving toward the east, as they usually did, sometimes without raining at all, this thunderhead stayed put and just kept building. By the time I got home that afternoon it was the biggest, darkest storm I've ever seen, parked right between the lowering sun and the city. It was so dark it was as if the sun had already gone down by late afternoon, and as it began to rain I noticed a bit of setting sunlight under the black clouds, which took on a sickly deep yellow-green color. It looked genuinely scary.

Then it really began to pour. It came in waves and when it was at its most intense it was just like standing under a waterfall. When it began to let up a little you could hear the roar of the next wave coming from the west. It kept up that way for hours and the storm still didn’t move. An elderly couple who always wore old-time cowboy clothes lived in a little cabin next door and were saying they knew something bad was going to happen because they'd noticed all the birds and bugs flying east ahead of the storm. "It's a time to think of God and pray to God," she said.

There were lots of reports coming in of flooding up in the Hills so I called my grandmother, who lived alone near Roubaix creek. The bridge below her had just washed out and she was going to head up the road to stay with a neighbor who lived on the hillside. Meanwhile in Rapid the intensity of the storm was so freakish and with the warnings that were starting to come over the radio there was a strange feeling of excitement in the air. Lots of people were out in their cars driving down to see the creek rise, so I took off with a buddy, Tom, to do the same. We stood in the rain with a lot of other people on the bridge at East North and saw picnic tables and small trees come down the creek, which was already pretty high and seemed to be rising as we watched. Back at home, we had one of those radios that gets every channel and we listened to the city two-way and heard the man who was in charge of the dam at Canyon Lake talking about how the dam was blocked with downed trees. If I recall right, the guy wanted to open the floodgates to lower the water, which was threatening to pour over the rim into the park, and couldn’t. I’m glad to hear he got out before it broke.

It was getting late and despite the excitement I was tired and went to bed. An hour or two later I heard a commotion at the front door and it was Tom, who was practically raving. Since he had a big truck that he figured could clear most floodwater, he’d given someone who lived on the west side of town a ride home and as he was driving back through the Gap the water from the dam hit. He was by the power substation that’s near the road there and as he drove by it exploded as it filled with water. He’d barely made it through. The power was out and I could see in the distance the orange glow coming from that blown substation. I suddenly realized that people were dying out there. The house I was in was south of the creek and high enough to have escaped. Lots of other people weren’t so lucky.

I don’t remember the rest of the details of that night, other than dozing off in an armchair with candles burning and the battery-powered radio on as it began to read endless lists of names of missing people. A couple drenched to their skin knocked on the door and ended up sleeping on the sofa, her sick from worry about her kids, who were staying with her parents near the creek. They headed out the next morning to find them. I remember walking down to the creek myself and purveying the destruction, picking my way through fallen power lines only to hear on the radio after I got home that they were still hot. It looked like everything had been scraped up, whirled in a blender, and poured back into the creekbed. Trees, cars, pieces of houses, telephone poles, big shreds of carpet. I remember the phones, gas, lights and water being out for days and trying to work around that. You’d pick up the phone and wait for maybe half an hour for a dial tone before you could call anyone. I remember the rumors of ghouls scouring the houses by the creek and pulling jewelry and watches off dead bodies. I remember the curfew and the National Guard driving through the streets with guns after sunset while watching CBS news somewhere as it reported “there’s no curfew in Rapid City -seems law and order isn’t a problem there”. Right. I remember the armory being stuffed full of free food for anyone who wanted it.

The biggest thing I noticed longterm after the flood was how it changed the whole feel of Rapid City. It completely lost that old-timey historical feel it used to have; the odd nooks and crannies and old buildings and houses and trees I liked were all gone. Nothing felt the same after. Maybe all that would have gone away over time anyway, like it has in other cities, but it seemed like the flood washed it all away in one night. At least the old couple in the cowboy clothes next door were still OK.



“Ken Jacobsen,” Flood of 1972, accessed July 2, 2022,