Tornado rips through South Dakota city
WESSINGTON SPRINGS, S.D. — John Berens was taking pictures with his iPad when his wife yelled at him to get to the basement.
“It was just like they say about a freight train,” he said, recalling the noise of the tornado. “The house is gone. I have a four-wheeler (ATV) and I don’t know where that ended up.”
Berens and his wife, Pat, were among many in Wessington Springs, who suffered devastation from a tornado that sliced through the southeast part of the city at about 7:30 p.m. Wednesday. Early reports indicated there were no life-threatening injuries.
Wessington Springs is a town of about 1,000 people about 50 miles northwest of Mitchell in southeast South Dakota.
Dedrich Koch, the Jerauld County state’s attorney and public information officer for the storm, said 11 houses had extensive damage and will be uninhabitable. Three businesses are gone — Springs Auto, the American Legion and Prairie Lounge, and the Hideout Bar and Grill. Minor damage was suffered at the nursing home, but Koch said there were no injuries there.
There were at least four nearby rural sites with tornado damage, including locations that lost outbuildings and suffered damage to homes. One location reportedly had damage where a woman was trapped under debris near Alpena, but Koch said the woman’s injuries were not life-threatening.
The entire city of Wessington Springs lost electrical power Wednesday night. About a third of the town had some sort of direct impact from the tornado, according to the South Dakota National Guard.
Koch said there was a propane tank in town that lost its cap and was slowly leaking, but law enforcement was monitoring that as darkness fell on the city.
The Spring Creek Hutterite Colony, 18 miles southwest of Wessington Springs, lost a turkey barn and suffered major damage to another barn.
Koch said the priority Wednesday night was to secure the city’s perimeter and make sure all people were accounted for. Temporary light systems were being placed throughout the city.
“We want to keep people from getting in and out,” Koch said. “People are going to want to come back to their homes and we want to make sure there’s nothing dangerous out there before we do that.”
The entrance point for the tornado was the corner of Dakota Avenue and state Highway 34 on the south side of Wessington Springs. From there, the tornado moved northeast toward the Wessington Springs Elementary School. Minimal damage was reported there, according to Koch. Sirens sounded, and eyewitnesses said local police and firefighters drove up and down the streets to alert people ahead of the tornado’s arrival.
Late Wednesday night, the fire hall was operating as the town’s emergency command center. At 10 p.m., supplies started to roll in, including bottles of water. The South Dakota National Guard was organizing efforts to search the city and make sure areas were safe. Another emphasis was to clean the streets, which were littered with debris in the northeast part of the city. Koch said he hoped cleanup would start early Thursday.
At the Humm Dinger convenience store at the center of town, owner Jason Zacher was pumping gas. That was thanks to local electrician Greg Heil and his generator.
“We’re just making sure we can get gas to those who need it,” Zacher said.
Heil echoed what other eyewitnesses in the town said.
“It could have been so much worse,” he said. “It really could have.”
The tornado knocked down power lines, collapsed some homes and ripped the roofs off others.
Wednesday’s tornado was the second to hit Wessington Springs in the past 11 years. In 2003, a tornado skipped across town, leaving a destroyed baseball grandstand, a badly damaged church and several other wounded structures in its wake.
Gov. Dennis Daugaard, who declared an emergency earlier in the week because of flooding in southwest South Dakota, wasted no time visiting the scene.
The Wessington Springs tornado was one of several tornado sightings Wednesday.
A twister was spotted just before 7 p.m. Wednesday, seven miles east of Gann Valley, S.D., according to a weather alert. It was expected to reach Wessington Springs by 7:30 p.m., and the storm also carried quarter-sized hail, the alert stated.
The National Weather Service issued tornado watches and warnings for several southeastern South Dakota counties late Wednesday evening, including a tornado warning for parts of Aurora, Brule and Jerauld counties, and a tornado watch for all of southeastern South Dakota. The tornado watch was issued around 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, and expected to last until 2 a.m. today.