Tornado affects former residents, family
Published: Thursday, June 26th, 2014
A tornado that ripped through the town of Wessington Springs shortly before 8 p.m. June 18 damaged at least 43 homes, at least 26 of which are uninhabitable, along with 12 businesses. Some of those affected by the tornado are former Custer residents or family members of current Custer residents.
Among those affected are former Custer County States Attorney Dedrich “Deech” Koch, who is now Jerauld County State’s Attorney and is also serving as a spokesman for the response effort following the tornado. Wessington Springs is in eastern South Dakota, southwest of Huron and northwest of Mitchell. It has a population of 850.
“We don’t have firm numbers yet,”âï¿½ï¿½Koch said of the damage.âï¿½ï¿½“There are initial numbers we have given out, but I’m sure they are going to be higher.”
According to the National Weather Service, the path of the tornado that hit the town was approximately two miles long and 30 yards wide with wind speeds as high as 127, making the tornado an EF-2. A tornado scale ranges from the least severe, an EF-0, to the most severe, an EF-5. Emergency responders were on hand soon after the tornado, working to restore basic services to the town. Most of the town was without power overnight after the storm, but generators were provided. The hospital, which the tornado missed for the most part, was operating on backup power immediately following the storm. In addition, the Red Cross set up a shelter and was expecting to serve nearly 400 meals to displaced residents.
According to a story in the Mitchell Daily Republic, three business were completely destroyed — Springs Auto, the American Legion/Prairie Lounge and the Hideout Bar and Grill. Nobody was killed during the tornado and only a couple of people sustained injuries. Several tornado alarms sounded before the tornado hit, allowing most people to get to shelter.
“Law enforcement did a really good job and followed it into Wessington Springs,”âï¿½ï¿½Koch said.âï¿½ï¿½“They had set the whistles off at least four times. We had a good 30-40 minutes of constant whistle blowing. They (residents) were all aware it was coming.”
Koch lives in Gann Valley, around 24 miles from Wessington Springs, and was at home when the storm formed. As it passed over his house, he could see the clouds beginning to spin, and said for a brief moment, there was a wind he would describe as tornadic. He and his wife, Bonnie, then drove around town to see if there was any damage and before long he was getting phone calls that there was a tornado headed to Wessington Springs. He started in that direction and as he drove he could see another tornado on the ground near Alpena. That tornado completely leveled a farm.
“That farm place looked like an atomic bomb went off,”âï¿½ï¿½Koch said.âï¿½ï¿½“They are quite fortunate to be alive.”
Custer County emergency management director Mike Carter was a member of the Incident Management Assistance Team summoned to Wessington Springs post-tornado to help coordinate the restoration of utilities, debris clearing and setting up occupational services and other needs for long-term recovery. He said the path of destruction the storm left was staggering.
“When you see that path of destruction and debris—you think about ‘The Wizard of Oz’ when you see tornados like that,” he said.âï¿½ï¿½“The thing that really stands out in my mind is not only the resilience of the community, but how the community could go through that without the loss of life whatsoever.”
Former Custer resident Christy Barber, a Custer High School graduate, has family deeply rooted in Wessington Springs and her uncle and aunt Ward and Connie Barber had their home destroyed by the tornado, along with all of their vehicles and a great deal of their belongings.
“They had heard the warnings, but they weren’t thinking it was going to be that close until they actually saw it come over the hill and hit a neighbor’s house,” Barber said.âï¿½ï¿½“They only had seconds to get to the basement before it hit their house.”
When they emerged from their basement following the storm, they were in shock to see the damage. Their home had a wall ripped off. Their neighbors’ home was completely gone. Only the foundation remained.
“They have lived in that house for 47 years,”âï¿½ï¿½Barber said.âï¿½ï¿½“After 47 years and kids, grandkids and great-grandkids, it is hard for them to have to clean up and start over.”
On Monday morning, structural engineers were going door-to-door in the town to assess the level of damage to each property. Koch said damage is worse than originally thought and it’s unclear how many business and homes can — or will — be rebuilt.
“It’s on-going process,”âï¿½ï¿½he said. “We aren’t sure at this point.”
The Barbers have been told their home isn’t structurally sound, so it will have to be torn down. Most of their belongings are wet or have glass embedded in them and everything in the dining room, living room and upstairs was destroyed. For now, the couple is staying in the home of a friend in town.
Barber said despite their losses, her aunt and uncle are thankful no lives were lost and they themselves weren’t injured.
“They are devastated, but they are worried about getting things cleaned up,”âï¿½ï¿½she said.âï¿½ï¿½“They are more exhausted than anything.”
Koch said one of the primary focuses of the incident command team was to get power restored on Main Street and get the water plant up and running. After that, the process of restoring all the electricity continued, as did the debris clean-up, which Koch said is going well.
“They are working diligently out there,”âï¿½ï¿½he said.âï¿½ï¿½“The amount of cleanup that occurred over the last few days has been absolutely amazing. People have dug in and gotten involved.”
Donations may be made to a relief fund established Thursday at American Bank and Trust, which has locations in Wessington Springs, Alpena, DeSmet, Huron, Mellette, Miller, Pierre and Wolsey, and should be directed to the Wessington Springs Relief Fund.
Gov. Dennis Daugaard said he sent 100 National Guard members to the town to assist with clean-up, and that the state plans to combine all the damage from the storm system to request a presidential disaster declaration, which would make federal funding available for emergency relief and reconstruction.
The National Weather Service, according to the Associated Press, said two other tornados touched down during the storm—one near Lane and the one near Alpena.
Koch said despite the devastation, the town is doing well. Things have returned to as normal as possible and the community is coming together to clean up and rebuild.
“The community spirit is nothing but positive,”âï¿½ï¿½he said.âï¿½ï¿½“The town is doing well. It really is.”
“The community is very resilient,” Carter said.âï¿½ï¿½“They all came together. There are a lot of displaced people, but they all have a family or friend to stay with. It speak volumes of the community.”
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