Shirley Hessman


Written Memory


June 17, 2009


June 9, 1972. A killing flood has been loosed on Rapid City. The gentle streams of my beloved Black Hills transformed into raving banshees by hours of extremely heavy rain, turning their confluence into a mad cauldron of water, trapped in ever narrowing space, roaring with unconstrained fury into the deepening canyon, tearing loose all in its unbridled, downward path. This is the haunting story of my experience that fateful night. Murky yellow-green clouds hugged the ground like a huge mustard plaster, making the air heavy and oppressive. I scanned that eerie sky once more, then went back inside. My husband" Leo, was watching television and I was working on last minute plans for our daughter Julie's wedding.

A burst of violent wind drove sudden sheets of rain against the house--perhaps it would relieve the threatening weight of the air. Rain continued to pelt the windows and I grew increasingly uneasy. At that moment Leo said, "Holy smoke, these flood warnings that I thought were for Chicago are local. Now it's saying for everyone below Canyon Lake Dam to evacuate immediately. Shirley, come on." "OK," I replied, "just let me put the bridal gowns up in the closet." In the time that took me and for Leo to put his rifles on the bed, water began gushing out of the floor registers in the family room., sending our dachshunds into frenzied barking. We grabbed our pets and rushed to the garage to escape in the car.

Too late! A sudden swell of water rushed in the open door, upsetting our huge deep freeze. As I stared disbelievingly at the bobbing behemoth, Leo shouted over the roar of the now hip deep water. "We can't get out, hurry, up into the attic." "How can I reach it?" I wailed over the panicked barking of the dogs. "Climb up on the car, you can reach the rafters from there," he ordered. I couldn't believe he'd actually told me to step on the car hood, but wasted no time obeying. I struggled upward, grasped the rafters and pulled myself up, tightly clutching Hansie. Leo quickly followed, burdened with Sadie. Precariously perched on the 2x4s, we watched in horror as our dear neighbors in their car were hurled down the street by a giant surge.

A huge bridge piling crashed into my car, shoving it out the back wall of the garage, A panicked Hansie wriggled from my grasp and fell. In the pitch blackness I could not see to retrieve him, and he dropped into the raging waters. The compelling darkness, such as I had never before experienced, the deafening roar of the tumultuous rending water, the pounding of the unrelenting rain was overwhelming. Water above, water around, water below. This was not life giving water, but voracious, consuming water from which there seemed to be no escape.

Nearly panicked, I took a deep breath, clutched Leo's hand tightly with one hand and desperately clung to the narrow boards with the other. Soaking wet and cold, tears streamed down my face as I mourned our lost friends and Hansie. With undiminished fury the rain continued, desperate cries for help at times reaching us over the ceaseless din of wind and water. In brief illumination from lightning, we watched the water level rapidly rising--up to the top shelves of the garage now--precious mementos of our children"s early years and of Leo's hunting trips swirled in the maelstrom, then down into the deadly torrent. In one bright flash we watched the Davis's house helplessly riding the sweeping flood, surrounded by uprooted trees, cars, and all the flotsam of destruction from this devastating, unstoppable force of nature.

Hours dragged by, the rain continued, our limbs cramped from immobility, but we feared to move on those narrow boards in the smothering darkness. At this point, I was resigned to death, but no longer panicked. I prayed that we might die with dignity, with steadfast faith in an all powerful God, and for comfort and strength for our children in their loss.

Finally, in the predawn light, we saw the water level begin to recede. The Spector of death faded, and the unrelenting rain stopped. Fearful of jumping into the water, which covered downed electric wires and other unknown hazards, we sat in cramped discomfort awaiting the rescue we now knew would come. Then we heard the sobbing voice of our daughter as rescue workers brought her to the ruin of her childhood home. "Mom, Dad, are you there? Are you ok?" came her desperate query. With voices choked with tears of relief, we called out, "Yes, honey, we're ok. We're up on the rafters." Minutes later strong arms lifted us down from our nightmare perch, and we embraced our little girl, humbly grateful for life.

We walked out of the remains of our home into a landscape dirty and stinking, into a scene of unbelievable destruction, of houses gone, of uprooted strange trees jammed against still standing structures, of the residue of rampaging waters strewn randomly about. By the grace of God, we had miraculously survived this night of death and terror.

Our home in 1972, was at 3805 Riverdel Drive, one of about fifty homes in a housing development touching one side of Canyon Lake Park. Our home was not totally destroyed, and was moved and restored some months later. Our daughter's wedding took place two weeks later and has endured for 37 years.The neighbors we had seen swept away in their car, Nora and Robert Beaudette and their twins Peter and Becky, miraculously survived being swept out of their car into that raging torrent. Most of our dear friends from the neighborhod also did, and each has an equally dramatic story to tell. We survived, went on to live fulfilling lives, but once touched by such a disaster, you are never the same person. Faith and the generosity of a nation helped us all to recover from this truly life changing event, but when cloudy skies and June rains occur each year, the bone chilling memories return.

Shirley Hessman



“Shirley Hessman,” Flood of 1972, accessed August 17, 2022,