The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A largely forgotten flood ignited the environmental justice movement

The Rapid City flood helped define pervasive environmental injustice and catalyze action

Rescue workers look through the roof of a submerged Rapid City house for flood victims on June 12, 1972. (David Cupp/The Denver Post/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

Fifty years ago, on the night of June 9, 1972, a wall of water rushed through the center of Rapid City, S.D. By the next morning, the flood had killed at least 238 people and caused as much as $100 million in property damage.

The disaster disproportionately harmed Native Americans, a minority in the city, generating awareness and activism around the issue at the core of contemporary climate change politics: environmental justice.

Environmental justice is typically defined as equal access to resources, and equal protection from hazards, derived from the nonhuman environment regardless of race, gender, sexuality or class. And its absence can sometimes stand out more boldly than its existence — for example, the ongoing exposure to unclean water that has devastated the majority-Black city of Flint, Mich.

While many observers date the rise of a movement to combat this inequality to 1982 protests in North Carolina, the Rapid City flood was one of the first moments that motivated such activism. The multidimensional fight against environmental injustice around Rapid City after the flood paved the way for the seminal North Carolina protests, as well as today’s Land Back movement and other recent Indigenous-led movements like the anti-pipeline protests at Standing Rock over the past decade.

The Rapid City flood devastated the Native American community in Rapid City. Between 20 and 25 percent of those who died in the 1972 flood were Native Americans — in a city that was 90 percent White and only around 5 to 7 percent Native American as of 1970.

This disparity stemmed from decades of housing and employment discrimination. Among the places most devastated by the disaster were trailer parks and transient dwellings built in the most dangerous parts of Rapid Creek’s flood plain. These were places where poorer Rapid City residents lived — and to be poor in Rapid City in the early 1970s often meant being Native American.

Cecelia Hernandez Montgomery, an Oglala Lakota woman born in 1910 on the Pine Ridge Reservation, remembered living in Rapid City in the mid-20th century. “One time I went looking for a house … and when I showed up they found out I was Indian. They said, ‘Sorry, it’s been rented out.’ ”

Stories like Montgomery’s abounded. The Lakota journalist Tim Giago remembered applying for a job in Rapid City. The owner “looked at the application and then looked at me. … Finally he said, ‘I don’t hire anyone from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.’ ”

Through this type of discrimination, Whites in Rapid City carefully managed where Native Americans could live, either by denying them well-paying jobs that might allow for upward mobility, or by not renting or selling to Native Americans outside a select few neighborhoods, including some directly in Rapid Creek’s flood plain.

Not only did this discrimination put Native Americans directly in Rapid Creek’s flood plain, leaving them susceptible to the flood, it also made their recovery afterward more difficult. Flood refugees had a much more difficult time transitioning out of government-supplied temporary housing and into permanent homes.

In 1973, Edgar Lonehill, a member of the Rapid City Indian Flood Victims Association, told a congressional committee holding a hearing on the flood that his group had observed, “some discrimination against Indian flood victims.”

Incidents included verbal abuse at a refugee camp on a nearby National Guard base, as well as subtler forms of discrimination. Government relief agencies prioritized financial relief for homeowners (who were mostly White) rather than renters (many of whom were Native American).

Hazel Bonner, a representative from the United Renters Council, a Rapid City advocacy group, testified before Congress that there was “discrimination in Rapid City against minority groups … particularly Indians.” Bonner cited an experiment her organization ran by sending a White prospective tenant out to visit apartments, followed immediately by a Native American tenant. “The White tenant … got three possible places to live,” Bonner reported, while “the Indian tenant … got nothing.”

What’s more, city leaders made purposeful decisions to use federal relief money to revitalize downtown businesses rather than invest substantially in low-income housing for those affected by the flood. Soon, a new civic center popped up. So too did a flood memorial and a long stretch of parkland along the creek designed to prevent new building in the flood plain. With much of the flood relief money put toward these improvements, rather than affordable housing, the housing crunch in Rapid City only intensified in the decades that followed. Today, Rapid City has a homelessness rate that’s nearly triple the national average, and the majority of those suffering homelessness in the city are Native American.

Yet such environmental injustice also created a space for new movements and activism. In the years immediately after the 1972 Flood, Rapid City and the Black Hills became an epicenter of the Red Power movement, led by groups such as the American Indian Movement (AIM) and Women of All Red Nations (WARN). This was no accident. Activists cited the injustices made visible by the flood as one of the reasons they made Rapid City a focal point for protest from the 1970s onward.

Native American protest in the 1970s also fueled increased environmental justice activism in and around the Black Hills. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, AIM and other Native American activist groups partnered with mostly White environmentalists and even White ranchers to protest planned uranium mining in the area. Calling themselves the Black Hills Alliance, these diverse stakeholders held rallies and launched lawsuits, successfully halting the uranium mining operation before it began.

This activism predated by two years what many observers consider to be the moment that launched the environmental justice movement: 1982 protests by Black residents of Warren County, N.C., against a proposed landfill site in their community. These protests inspired communities across the United States to organize protests against environmental crises that disproportionately affected communities of color, poorer communities and women.

But the Rapid City flood had already catalyzed this kind of activism and a dawning recognition that the harms from natural disasters were often not natural, but the byproduct of bigotry and discrimination that increased the risks for poor communities and communities of color.

While the Warren County protests targeted visible environmental injustice, the Rapid City flood revealed that human decisions made natural disasters, such as floods, unequal events. Moreover, the example of Rapid City in 1972 highlights how not just the disaster, but even disaster relief, can become an issue of environmental injustice if not approached from a perspective of environmental justice.

The Rapid City flood therefore has much to teach us about environmental justice 50 years on. “Natural disasters” will only grow more common in our changed climate, and as they do, disempowered people — like the Native Americans in Rapid City forced to live in the flood plain by discrimination — will bear an unequal burden of risk and harm. Disaster mitigation strategies could address this reality by making at-risk communities a priority.

Yet environmental justice does not need to be simply reactive; it can also take the form of planning and preventive measures. Some institutions are already doing this. In May, the Biden administration announced a new office of environmental justice as part of the Department of Health and Human Services. However, such actions are merely the beginning. Combating environmental injustice requires a proactive and systemic approach if we want to prevent communities from simply doubling down on the wrongs of the past.