A Disastrous Flood that Brought Out the Best and the Worst in People

A natural disaster brings out the best and the worst in people.

The 40th Anniversary of the Rapid City Flood of 1972 has brought out mostly the best in the actions of the people during and after the flood. 238 people lost their lives that night, many of them Native Americans by reason of geography: most of them lived in what is now called the flood plain along the banks of Rapid Creek.

But along with the "best" there were also instances of the "worst." It is hard for people not living in South Dakota to understand the thread of racial prejudice that existed back in the 1970s. The takeover at Wounded Knee by the American Indian Movement would happen just seven months after the flood, but during the flood several members of AIM rolled up their sleeves and worked side-by-side with other Native Americans they would later label as GOONS.

But in the aftermath of this disaster politics between the different Indian factions were set aside. AIM leader Russell Means was right in the thick of pulling bodies from the flood waters along with members of the Dick Wilson administration. In 1973 they would be at war against each other.

Ruben McCloskey, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, lived in Rapid City and along with Don Loudner, a member of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe who just happened to be on assignment with the National Guard that fateful week, did their best to save lives even as the waters of Rapid Creek raged across the city.

As the victims sought shelter that night and the next morning, Rapid City's Mayor Don Barnett quickly authorized Rapid City motels to open up their rooms to accommodate the survivors with assurances that the City would take up most of the financial slack. But the old racial hatreds of some of the motel owners came out in the open. They began to refuse rooms to Indians and this could have led to certain conflict if Mayor Barnett had not stepped up and declared an end to this racial aggression and threaten those motel owners who did not cooperate with threats of reprisal. It is ironic that even in the face of death and destruction; there are still those who jealously defend their own racism.

I was working in a construction job in Elko, Nevada on June 9, 1972. When I got up on the morning of June 10 before heading to work I watched the morning news and was aghast when the news of the flood was announced. I immediately got on the phone and tried to reach my mother who lived in Rapid City and through her I would be able to find out about my brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins. But as happens in most disasters, all of the phone lines were either stressed or out of service.

I called my boss and told him what had happened and he told me to head on home. I drove non-stop as far as Lusk, Wyoming until I could no longer keep my eyes open so I pulled over and caught a couple of hours of sleep before finishing the trip to Rapid City.

By that time work crews and heavy equipment had already made a good dent in the cleanup and when I came into town on Highway 79 I was appalled at the extent of the disaster. Entire sections of town were unrecognizable. Cars and mobile homes had been washed across fields and under river bridges like so many toys. Finding my way through the maze to find the apartment where my mother lived was an adventure in itself.

My mom was frightened, but she was safe and sound. She had been in contact with the rest of the family and all of them had surprisingly survived.

The river or creek as we called it, Rapid Creek, a place where we swam and fished as boys, had risen in the torrents of rain that poured from the skies that night of June 9 and had wreaked havoc on a community that would rise from the mud and debris to become the health and economic center of Western South Dakota.

There are those who still criticize the lack of racial harmony in this city, but even those images have begun to change. There are Indians and non-Indians working together to tear down the wall of racial prejudice without fanfare. And those who criticize race relations the most are those living far from this city and have not shared in the efforts to bring about positive change.

The criticisms I offer in my writings are called constructive by those who know me best. Change often follows disaster and Mayor Barnett stood taller than all of the others and most of the citizens of Rapid City have no idea of the racial issues he faced with courage and intelligence during and after the year following the greatest disaster in the history of Rapid City.

But as history would have it, the best and the worst of people came out during and after the Flood of 1972. Thank goodness the best prevailed.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born and educated on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was founder of the Native American Journalists Association and of Indian Country Today newspaper. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991.