Views from the Cab

By David Tollefson, Columnist

I don’t know how many of you readers remember that historic flood, or have heard about it later.

For my family, my brother’s wife Marilee grew up in Rapid City. She was not there at the time, but surely heard about it from family in Rapid City.

A faithful reader of this column, Don Koneckne, still lives on the north end of Rapid City, and was recently on a panel of survivors of the historic event.

First of all, some background of the flood from Wikipedia:

On June 9-10, 1972, extremely heavy rains over the eastern Black hills of South Dakota produced record floods on Rapid Creek and other streams in the area. Nearly 15 inches of rain fell in about 6 hours near Nemo, and more than 10 inches of rain fell over an area of 60 square miles. According to the Red Cross, the resulting floods left 238 people dead and 3,057 people injured. In addition to the human tragedy, total damage was estimated in excess of 160 million dollars (about 1.04 billion in 2021 dollars), which included 1,335 homes and 5,000 automobiles that were destroyed.

Now to the eyewitness accounts including Don Koneckne’s.

This was a 2022 South Dakota hydrology Conference recently in Rapid City. Graphs, charts and maps told a story of both devastation and progress. But the memory panel discussion of flood survivors colored the statistics with flesh and Blood.

Don Koneckne reported: “I found myself on the hood of a tractor, throwing rope to a flailing neighbor caught in the flood waters. The water had killed the engine. Everything was under water, roads, the entire valley. I remember 20 children tied together with rope. A home came down Rapid Creek and shattered into ‘a million pieces’ when it hit a bridge. The first body I saw was a man face down and shirtless, wearing firefighter boots. My yard was full of scattered railroad ties.”

Mark Anderson recalled a visit to his parents’ house on Jackson Boulevard the evening of June 9. He was finishing up his sophomore year at Mines, and he and his wife routinely stopped by on Friday nights. They’d heard about heavy rains over Deadwood but weren’t alarmed.

About 9:30 p.m., he hopped in his car to investigate the creeks amid darkening clouds and intensifying rains.  

Anderson’s observations weren’t suggestive of the devastation to come, though he said there was a feeling of unease as he returned to his parents’ house.

He recalled the scrolling message at the bottom of their TV screen, and the only warning they would officially receive: “Anyone living immediately adjacent to Rapid Creek should consider evacuation.”

“Should consider,” he repeated. Anderson said streetlights illuminated a wall of water tearing down Jackson Boulevard “like a spillway.”

He described cars floating out of driveways as if they were driven by real people. Morning light revealed a house in the street and dead bodies piled with toe tags – a memory Anderson struggled to articulate.

Larry Stetler remembered his garage “[blowing] up like a bomb hit it” from a wall of debris. He was a 15-year-old paper boy with a route that got significantly shorter the next day, he said. He lost 66 houses on his route that night.

By 8 p.m., the rain was coming down so hard he couldn’t see 10 feet in front of him. His basement was leaking, and he recalled helping his dad lay plywood and bricks. Then the roof started leaking. When they heard Canyon Lake dam had broken, they knew it was time to get out. His family piled into their car and got to the end of the driveway, but a crashing wall of water and debris ensured that was as far as they got. Stetler had to crawl out of the car window.

At one point, they made a human chain to rescue an inconsolable father, convinced he’d lost his daughter in the floodwaters. Thankfully, she was found the next day. They spent that night in their attic, refuge from the three feet of water inside their house.

The next morning, he saw a woman who had floated down to their house from the ensuing flood waters on a glass globe. He heard screams that would intensify and then fade, knowing – hoping – the fading meant they were rescued.  

“It’s burned right up here (pointing to his head) just like it happened 10 minutes ago,” he said.

“It was a horrible night,” said Jerry Wright.

“Thank God it was dark,” he said.

Wright saved a baby’s life that day. “To this day, he doesn’t know who it was. There were all kinds of heroes doing all kinds of things that day,” he said.  

All four recalled the National Guard, police department and average people risking their lives to help neighbors and strangers alike, huddled on car tops and clinging to trees.

The devastating picture painted by these four men provided sobering context for a morning spent showcasing lessons learned and tireless efforts to prevent such devastation from ever happening again.

The sessions featured speakers from the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Weather Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, among others.

Their presentations highlighted what 50 years of research has taught Rapid City. The stories of Koneckne, Anderson, Stetler and Wright stand with many others as a testament to the necessity of this research, and a memorial to those who can’t tell their own.

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So, what we’re going through here in Pope County and the whole upper Midwest is mild compared to the above stories.  

As I write this, its raining again (over one-half inch so far) and more on the way. By the time you read this it will be May, and not only farmers, but gardeners, spring sports teams, golfers and the general public are concerned.  

As I send this in, I have gotten the majority of my wheat planted. It’s amazing what a couple days of warmer temperatures with off-and-on sunshine can do.

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Please contact David Tollefson with thoughts or comments on this or future columns at: