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Words that changed Rapid City: 'We cannot sentence the survivors to one more night on the suicidal floodplain'

Don Barnett at the former location of city hall in Rapid City.
From the book "Surviving the '72 Flood"
Johnny Sundby Photography
Don Barnett at the former location of city hall in Rapid City.

The attached audio above is from SDPB's daily public-affairs show, In the Moment.

The 50th commemoration of the 1972 Black Hills Flood is Thursday. It’s a time to honor the 238 people who died, and it also brings a flood of memories for those who survived. Since February, SDPB has been sharing stories from those survivors, in their own words.

Today, in the final installment, we hear from Don Barnett. He was the 29-year-old mayor of Rapid City in 1972. Two days after the flood, he called a meeting of the city council.

And so we were sitting there and there was a federal guy that had I'd met. He was already here from FEMA. It wasn't called that then, but it was the Office of Emergency Preparedness. And he said, "Here's what I need. I need permission to repair six mobile home parks by the creek."

Well, they'd been torn asunder. A lot of our casualties were mobile home families, and it was just terrible. And he gave us this spiel about the agency, and they'd bring in contractors, and they'd hire local people. And he painted the picture that within a few weeks, we'd have everybody into temporary FEMA mobile homes, brand new ones.

And it got quiet for a moment.

Swaney, then the public works director, his name was Leonard F, Swanson, he looked at all of us. We had 10 councilmen and me, and this federal guy in the room.

Leonard Swanson
Leonard Swanson

And he said, "No, we cannot sentence the survivors to one more night on the suicidal flood plain."

That is tattooed on my brain and on my soul, and it's in the scrapbooks I have.

And then he said, "Listen, I've worked for the city since the late 1940s. This is my fourth flood. The floods in 1907 and earlier than that were even bigger than the flood of 1972." And he said, "We cannot go back and reoccupy the floodplain as stated city policy, and rebuild mobile homes so the next flood can kill a couple hundred people again."

And he made this so emphatically clear, and Larry Lytle then, who was the president of the city council, he said, "Now, wait a minute. Swaney's absolutely right."

He said, "I move that we do not permit the federal people to even consider repairing the mobile home parks near the creek."

And Al Wilson, a mid-level manager at the phone company and from Ward 2, he said, "I second proudly Dr. Lyle's motion."

I said, "Let's vote right now."

Ten to nothing. And Swaney collapsed. He put his hands on his knees, tears streaming down his face. And I said, "Swaney, we better take you home now. You've done your duty tonight."

The Journey Museum & Learning Center in Rapid City will screen a new SDPB documentary, “Surviving the ’72 Flood,” at 6:30 p.m. Mountain time on June 8. The film will air on SDPB-1 the next evening, June 9, at 9 Central/8 Mountain.

An SDPB episodic podcast of the same name is available now on various podcast platforms.

Click here for all of SDPB's flood-related content.

Seth supervises SDPB's beat reporters and newscast team. He works at SDPB's Black Hills Studio in Rapid City.