Congestion plagues tornado cleanup: Outsiders kept out of Wessington Springs as recovery progresses
By Marcus Traxler
Cleanup crews were struggling to maneuver through town smoothly because of narrow streets filled with parked vehicles and debris.
Mayor Melissa Mebius said that’s among the chief reasons the community has so far not allowed outside volunteers to help. Family members of tornado victims have been asked to carpool into town when possible.
“We’re still in the personal property recovery stage,” she said.
Officials said volunteers could be allowed in the city soon, possibly as early as Saturday.
An estimated 43 homes were damaged by the tornado, including as many as 30 that have been deemed uninhabitable. At least 12 businesses were damaged and three were destroyed, and officials said the damage counts could rise as structural engineers continue assessments. No life-threatening injuries were suffered, thanks in part to early tornado warnings.
Mebius said affected residents should make a list of things they need, so the lists can be given to the emergency operations center and the needs met.
Residents are being directed to pile debris on the curb for the South Dakota National Guard and other entities to haul away. They’ve also been directed to clean the debris outside their homes before doing inside cleanup, because the National Guard cannot assist with inside cleanup due to liability issues.
Another focus is restoring power. Residents with power were being instructed to use as little as possible and to avoid using air conditioning. Power poles were being installed where possible in the damaged areas, but there’s not a timeline for power returning to those areas. An emphasis is also being placed on getting landline phone service restored.
Medical operations are functioning at nearly full strength. The town’s clinic opened at noon Friday and was able to assist with minor injuries and handle prescription refills. Avera Weskota Memorial Hospital Administrator Gaea Blue said the hospital was operating with full staff Friday, despite operating only on generator power. The tornado’s path was about a half block east of the hospital.
How to help
Tony Burke, the community chapter executive for the Eastern South Dakota region of the American Red Cross, said monetary donations are best. Those donations can be made at redcross.org or at one of the regional locations of American Bank and Trust.
The Red Cross has set up operations in the county 4-H building near the Springs Golf Course, and more than 2,600 bottles of water and 925 meals and snacks were distributed before the storm was 24 hours old. The building has provided air-conditioned shelter and has comfort kits on hand that include personal hygiene and toiletry products.
Wessington Springs resident Norma Powell was among 15 to 20 American Red Cross volunteers at the 4-H building Friday morning. She said it’s been rewarding to help those who need it.
“I guess I’m retired and I’m free,” she said. “I’m glad to help.”
Maggie Doering’s house blew down the Main Street and into a neighboring home about 75 yards away. She said semi after semi has hauled debris away from the scene in the last two days, thanks to the National Guard. Many of her valuables have been recovered, she said, including her purse and billfold.
“We’re hanging in there,” Doering said.
Thune, Noem visit
U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., visited the impacted parts of the community Friday. Thune addressed the town’s residents during a morning meeting and said he has confidence the community can rebuild.
“I think more than anything, the community needs hope,” he said. “There’s just this sense of shock that is tough.”
Thune said the damage was startling to see. He arrived at 8:30 a.m. and met with residents impacted by the EF-2 tornado that whipped through Wednesday night for two miles at maximum wind speeds of 127 mph.
“You see it up close and it’s absolutely stunning to see the damage,” he said. “So much of our lives are in our homes, and for people here, it’s been turned upside down.”
He had little doubt the community of around 900 people will bounce back and said it will be “bigger and better than ever.”
“These guys are going to feel a ton of support. That’s one of the great things about our state,” Thune said.
Thune said he will work to make federal assistance available through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The first step is Gov. Dennis Daugaard declaring the city a federal disaster area. Daugaard said Thursday he intends to combine the tornado damage with the flooding in southeast South Dakota to get greater relief resources and reconstruction.
Later in the day, Noem visited the town and met with South Dakota National Guard personnel at the Wessington Springs Fire Hall, which is doubling as the emergency operations center.
Leaders directed those working to drink plenty of water and take breaks. Temperatures neared 90 degrees Friday and are expected to be the same today.
“When we started out, this was a sprint,” said Jerauld County State’s Attorney Dedrich Koch, who is a spokesman for the response effort. “This is now a marathon. You have to keep your energy up.”