Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Rapid City Flash Flood Of June 9, 1972

Forty years ago this past Saturday, a destructive flash flood struck Rapid City, South Dakota, after torrential rains fell over the Black Hills region during the afternoon and evening. Peak flows reached to near 50,000 CFS in normally placid Rapid Creek. This flood peak occurred around midnight, which is not an unusual aspect of many serious flash floods. This nocturnal nature complicates public awareness and emergency responses. The toll of this flood in Rapid City was 238 deaths, plus tremendous property damage. The above photo shows what was left of Canyon Lake Dam after the heavy rains. The photo below shows residential damage in Rapid City.

At the time of this severe flood, I was a Captain in the USAF and was on my way to Colorado State University to begin graduate studies supported by the Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT). Little did I know then that much of my research during the next 15 years would focus on the meteorology associated with flash floods.

The Rapid City flash flood was one of several events that occurred during the 1970s. The Big Thompson flash flood hit in the Colorado Front Range during the night of July 31, 1976. This flood caused approximately 145 fatalities as it scoured through popular recreation sites and motels from Estes Park to the mouth of the canyon. In July of 1977, another nocturnal flash flood struck, this time in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Johnstown was already infamous for the devastating flood of the late 1800s. The 1977 flood caused 84 deaths. Then in September, 1977, a flash flood struck in the Brush Creek area of Kansas City - home to the NWS Central Region Headquarters, the Severe Storms Forecast Center, and the NWS National Training Center. This flood took 25 lives, many being those of people trying to drive into the area to see the flooding. These flood disasters had all struck with little or no advance warning.

By the end of the 1970s the NWS had begun teaching, at its National Training Center, a week-long residence course (for field forecasters from around the country) that focused on most aspects of the flash flood problem. The course was taught 6 to 8 times during a typical year, with about 20 different forecasters attending each course. Hopefully, the course (which was taught well into the 1980s) helped both NWS forecasters and warning systems to respond better to threatening flood situations.

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