“Night of Disaster in Rapid City,” Ensign, Sept. 1972, 93
On the night of June 9, Serena Little’s car stalled in two feet of water surging across the road from swollen Rapid Creek. Time after time she tried the ignition without success.
Serena, who was on her way home from a final missionary lesson and a commitment to be baptized in two weeks, tried again to start the engine. Too wet. For eight hours torrents of rain had pounded the area, and the runoff from the hills behind the city had raised the level of the creek, causing it to spill over its banks and flood the road, which was now visible only in split-second flashes of lightning.
Again she tried. Again the engine turned over, but it wouldn’t start.
Serena turned to prayer, to a source she was certain would help her, to her newly found faith in her Heavenly Father. Then she turned the key once again—and the engine started! Cautiously she drove toward higher ground and home, leaving a rising wake churning behind her.
Moments later floodwaters, gathering strength as they poured down the eastern slopes of South Dakota’s Black Hills, tore out a dam and formed a raging torrent that roared down the middle of Rapid City, sweeping away homes and cars, washing out bridges, knocking out telephone lines, cutting off communications over a wide area.
In the next few hours, in this night of death and destruction, 229 persons would die, five of whom were Latter-day Saints. Damage would reach $100 million and 500 persons would be missing before the waters receded by midmorning. Freakish weather occasionally hits the resort city of Rapid City, but never before had the low-lying areas become flooded plains; now the flood extended more than sixty miles from north to south and fifty miles from east to west.
Charles Williamson, president of the Rapid City Second Branch of the Church, later recalled the beginnings of the disaster.
“From the city that day I looked to the west and saw large thunderheads forming. Winds from the southwest, plus high humidity, would probably result in a very large rainfall hitting the city in the late afternoon, I thought. As I drove home late that afternoon, showers had already started and I noticed the creek rising. So I started making phone calls to alert our members in the low-lying areas.”
In the evening before crisis became disaster, branch presidents in Rapid City moved into action.
“Home teachers began accounting for their families,” said President Paul H. Kelly of the Rapid City First Branch. “Many had to make the rounds by automobile and on foot because the telephone lines were overloaded.”
In Salt Lake City, Junior Wright Child, managing director of the Church Welfare Department, had also moved into action. “Because communications were snarled, it was difficult to call Rapid City,” he recalls, “but we managed to reach President Rex C. Reeve, of the Northern Indian Mission, at seven o’clock Saturday morning. He called in regularly so we could keep the First Presidency informed of the condition of the Saints there and the measures being taken to help them. We dispatched a truck carrying 20,000 pounds of food and clothing.”
“We drove straight through and stopped only for gasoline,” recalls Charles Newton, who, with Hugh Henderson, delivered the truckload of supplies. “We were surprised and happy to find the chapel, a meetinghouse for both branches in Rapid City, untouched by the floodwaters and serving as a relief center for anyone who needed help.”
Relief Society President Sandi Lloyd and other members of the branches had hot lunches prepared, and clothing was being distributed to families according to their needs.
The experiences of one family of five were recalled by Wayne Bevan, stationed at nearby Ellsworth Air Force Base.
“The first thing we knew about the flood was a warning on TV. I sandbagged the entranceway of our home. The water level seemed stable; then suddenly it started rising rapidly, filling the stairwell and flooding the first floor. When it was near the second floor, I took some blankets and pillows up into the attic and we climbed up—all five of us.
“We talked of many things. Jennie, our five-year-old daughter, mentioned her first talk to be given in Sunday School that week. She had selected the story of Noah and the Ark. ‘I thought Heavenly Father wasn’t going to destroy the earth with a flood anymore,’ she said. We tried to explain that this flood wasn’t going to destroy the whole earth, but that it was just right here in Rapid City. The attic, four feet high at the apex, was going to be our ark.”
It was pitch black, but the family could see occasional flashes of lightning through the ventilation holes in the side of the roof.
“I hadn’t thought that anything serious could happen to us,” said Brother Bevan, “until one o’clock in the morning, when I was checking the level of the water and saw a neighbor’s house floating down the street.
“We decided we would sing some songs to pass the time, and the first song the children wanted to sing was ‘I Am a Child of God.’ Then, for the first time through this experience, we felt good.”
Vic Williamson, a deacon in the Rapid City Second Branch, was baby-sitting that night.
“We were in a mobile home near the lake—two boys, one three years old and the other four years old, and I. We noticed that the lake was backing up. A man knocked on the door and advised us to get across the bridge before it washed out. We managed to reach a house and thought our only chance now was to get on the roof. We sat near the chimney, shivering. All around we could hear snap, snap, snap—those were houses! In lightning flashes we could see people on the roofs calling for help.
“The house we were on started to go; we could hear the timbers under the roof starting to crack. We were really scared and we prayed—and the house didn’t go. Later, when the water receded and cars could come down from the hills, a policeman tied himself to a long rope, waded in, and helped us all down.”
James B. Mathews, a counselor to President Reeve and coordinator for seminaries and institutes for the North Central States division, remembers how he and his wife learned of the impending disaster.
“We first became aware of the flood when we heard warnings over a police car loudspeaker. My wife called the police, and they advised her to evacuate to high ground. She then called President Reeve for advice, and he pronounced a blessing on our home that it might remain upon its foundation. That it did. It has been heavily flooded with silt, but it is still structurally sound. We are so grateful for the Church welfare program; it was there to assist with bedding, clothing, and food supplies.”
The mobile home of Ross Lawrence and his wife and their five children remained intact while nine others nearby were swept away and destroyed.
“This disaster has proved to us that the Lord is with us. We were fortunate that our home was not damaged in any way, while all the others around us suffered damage. Cars were swept away, but ours stayed. Even our little garden remained through the flood. We surely felt the Lord’s protecting care with us.”
“Did it ever enter your mind that you might not make it? Ever?” That was a question many people were asking.
The home of Frank Thomas, Sunday School superintendent, was located near the creek. By the time Brother Thomas reached home, it was already too late to use the car.
“We had a family prayer and asked our Father in heaven to help us in this time of confusion and disaster. Then we put the children in the back bedroom. The water was lapping at our windows, and I knew it was just a matter of time before some debris would break through the glass and flood the house.
“We heard a tremendous crash. Everything seemed so unreal and was happening so fast. As the lightning flashed, we could see a home float by with people on the roof, screaming for help. There was nothing I could do except try to save my own family. The little ones were huddled in the corner. As the water continued to rise, we floated them on mattresses.”
“When the floodwaters began to recede,” said his wife Shirley, “we all sat down on a mattress, my husband on one end, our son Steven on the other, and myself and our daughters in the middle, so we would be surrounded by the priesthood.”
In the morning when the waters had subsided, the house was a shambles. A full-size bridge had hit the house gable-high, literally ripping the roof from its moorings. Debris was fifteen feet high. But despite the extensive damage to their home, the Thomases suffered no injuries.
In this their third such disaster, Brother and Sister Dean Troili and their six children again escaped injury. They had previously survived a Mississippi hurricane and a California earthquake, and now a South Dakota flood.
“We were first aware of the seriousness of the situation when President Williamson called to tell us that Rapid Creek was rising rapidly. Since our home was in the path of the impending flood, he advised us to leave. He estimated that we had less than one hour to vacate the area.”
The Troilis carried their genealogy records upstairs along with other valuable papers and elevated their food supply in the garage. Then they drove to the top of a nearby hill, where the pastor of a small church invited them in to spend the night.
“When I checked the house early in the morning,” Brother Troili recalls, “I could see that it had sustained severe damage, but it was still standing. The next day and in the days that followed everybody was helping each other. The real message for us is that we should each take stock of ourselves, put a little less interest in material things, get to know our fellowmen and to appreciate them, and try to improve our own lives.”
Don Warner, assistant sports editor of the Standard Examiner in Ogden, Utah, was visiting in Rapid City at the time of the flood.
“I was impressed by the reactions of the people. There were some who lost everything—homes, cars, all their belongings—yet they kept their sense of humor. People banded together. It was very moving to see neighbors who had been distant in their relationships with one another now put their arms around each other in common tragedy.
“Help came from all around. The Pierre [South Dakota] Branch elders quorum sent money and manpower to help. One member took six refugees into his home at a nearby air force base and took care of them while his teenage sons scouted for baby bottles and baby food, and the boys slept outdoors so weary guests could have their beds. I’m sure there were many instances like this one. The response to this disaster has renewed my faith in people.”
Loss in the Rapid City flood was high, and it will take many months—even years—for some of the people to rebuild their homes and lives as they were before those few disastrous hours the night of June 9, 1972. Many members of the Church lost their homes. In the Second Branch, eleven homes were totally destroyed and seven others were damaged. Damage was even more extensive in the First Branch, and five persons in that branch lost their lives, including a mother and her two children. The husband of a member was also killed.
“We are wondering how this loss can ever be recovered,” said President Williamson. “Some people will have to start over again. But the spirit, faith, and brotherhood of our members give us great confidence that we will rebuild, that we will again become self-sustaining and self-sufficient.”