Disaster Mental Health and the 1972 Flood

Dakota Digest - 06/08/2012

We've spent this week looking back at the 1972 flood and hearing from survivors. Many of those who witnessed the flash flood experienced traumatic events, 40 years later some still suffer the effects. South Dakota is home to the nation's only University Based Disaster Mental Health program that provides high level training to the Ph.D. level.   The Institute at USD was formed to improve mental health counseling in the wake of disasters.  On today's Dakota Digest SDPB's Charles Michael Ray examines the issue of disaster mental health through the lens of the 72 flood.

Forty years after the 1972 flood thunderstorms are still a bit unnerving for Rita Rosales.

"Like when I hear it thundering and stuff I start shaking right away when it rains a lot I start to  Panic, and I call the kids, where you at are you safe you got a ride home don't come home wait until the water to go down whatever," says Rosales. 

In June of 1972 Rosales was seven months pregnant, and as the flood waters began to rise she became worried about her mother who was visiting downtown Rapid City.  Rosales went out into the heavy rain and eventually found her mom in waist deep water, the two attempted to get up Main Street but they didn't make it. 

"And all of the sudden this big huge wall of water came up and we were underwater but I felt this hair wrap around my arm, and I picked my arm up, what made me pick it up I don't know, but I picked my arm up and that was my mom-she was drowning and she said that I saved her," says Rosales. 

Rosales and her mother ended up pinned by the rising waters against a wall.  It's an experience she can't let go of.

"We thank God that we were together at the time because we pulled each other out of that flood, and I wouldn't wish that on nobody that's a nightmare and a half to think that you're going to die in the water and your mom is going to go with you because and you know you're trying to do your best to keep your mom alive," says Rosales.

The pair were eventually rescued, by a young man Rosales calls an angel.    But the memories of the disaster that unfolded around her, won't leave her mind.

"There were so many in trees and screaming and crying and there were sparks form electric wires it was, it was hell," says Rosales.

The hell that victims of natural disasters can experience can leave behind mental health issues akin to combat.

"The research is very clear that no matter how strong you are,  no matter how strong your coping skills, no matter what your socioeconomic status no matter what your intelligence traumatic stress can overwhelm your coping skills," says Jacobs.  

Dr. Jerry Jacobs is a professor of Psychology and the Director of the Disaster Mental Health Institute at the University of South Dakota.   The institute is the first and only academic program of its type in the country that trains specialists to assist in disaster recovery.  The Red Cross now includes teams of mental health experts who assist in recovery.   Jacobs says stress in the wake of a disaster is perfectly normal--he says it's important to remove the stigma around the issue.   He encourages those who've experienced stress from disasters to seek out psychological support either from a professional, or even from friends and neighbors.

"We really work to educate the public that you don't have to be embarrassed about having traumatic stress reactions you don't have to be embarrassed about seeking out help that this is something that can effects any human being in the world when they're faced with overwhelming events," says Jacobs.

Jacobs notes that mental health issues can persist for a lifetime if untreated.  He points to World War Two vets who can't shake the experiences of war even after six decades.   But Dr. Randy Quivellion (QUIVLE-un) who is chair of the Psychology Department at USD and a faculty member in the Disaster Mental Health Institute says it's never too late to seek out support.

"While it is possible for it to absolutely be life-long it doesn't mean that after several years have gone by that it's too late to work your way through it," says Quevellion.  

Many like Rita Rosales have found support in the years following the 1972 flood. Rosales says she talks to a psychologist once in a while about her experiences.  She says every time she tells her story it gets easier but that she'll always carry part of the experience with her.  

"It's a like a tattoo on your body that's there forever -- it's a tattoo on your brain that's there forever," says Rosales.   

For some the memories of the 1972 flood are still too hard to talk about.  Experts say that supporting the mental health of a community in the wake of a disaster is every bit as important as rebuilding infrastructure.  The lessons of the '72 flood on development in a flood plain are clear.   The importance of disaster mental health is yet another lesson this flood leaves behind. 


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