Where do we go? Homeless tornado victims turn to campers, apartments, hunting lodges
WESSINGTON SPRINGS, S.D. — Only moments after a tornado ripped through her neighborhood, Alicia Roesler stood on the street in front of her home with her two young daughters close by and saw the devastation for the first time.
“I think I was just in shock,” Roesler said. “I just couldn’t believe it actually happened. I don’t think it hit me for a couple of days.”
The home where Roesler and her husband, Aaron, and daughters, Alexis, 5, and Lily, 3, lived in Wessington Springs was in the path of the tornado that hit the town June 18, but was still standing after the storm passed. The damage to Roesler’s home was extensive — an attached garage was destroyed, nearly all the windows were shattered and personal items in the home were thrown everywhere. Other nearby homes were leveled in the storm.
“It was hard to see my neighbors who had lost so much,” she said. “It was sad to watch them go through their stuff.”
Now, Roesler and her family are staying with her parents, who live on a farm six miles east of Wessington Springs. The family wants to rebuild, Roesler said, but are waiting for an estimate from their insurance company. The foundation of her family’s home is intact, but much of the rest of the home will have to be gutted and replaced.
“We’re pretty fortunate we don’t have to start completely over,” she said
The tornado scattered debris across the small town, causing no life-threatening injuries but destroying about 15 homes and significantly damaging another 44 homes, according to Wessington Springs Mayor Melissa Mebius. At least seven damaged homes have been torn down, and others could be demolished if they can’t be repaired.
The vast majority of the debris has been cleaned up, but the tornado displaced 77 people, according to Mebius. With nowhere else to go, residents without homes have taken whatever accommodations are available. Many have moved in with relatives, while others are staying in campers or in empty rooms at nearby hunting lodges, and still others are renting the available apartments in town.
‘We’re going to stay’
When the tornado passed nearby Todd and Hilary Grohs’ home in Wessington Springs, it tossed their camper onto a neighbor’s deck. On Thursday, the Grohses, who have four children, backed a new camper into one of the few open spaces in the town’s park with plans to stay for the weekend before moving into living quarters at a family farm about 25 miles southwest of Wessington Springs.
Todd Grohs said his family’s home sustained significant structural damage in the tornado, but he hasn’t yet heard whether it will have to be demolished, or if it can be repaired. Either way, they’re not moving.
“We’re going to stay where we’re at,” he said.
As the hordes of volunteers who came to the town to assist in the cleanup left, Mebius said the reality of the situation set in for many residents. Still, the majority remain positive.
“They’re looking forward now to getting to the rebuilding phase,” she said. “People understand this is a process and it will take some time.”
According to the National Weather Service in Sioux Falls, the path of the tornado that hit Wessington Springs was more than two miles long and 200 yards wide with wind speeds as high as 135 mph. The weather service rated the tornado as an EF-2, the fourth most severe rating on a scale from EF-0, the lowest rating, to EF-5, the highest rating.
Despite the devastation, Mebius said she doesn’t think residents displaced by the disaster will simply pick up and leave town.
“This is their home and they’re going to want it to continue to be their home,” she said.
Mayor among the displaced
Mebius is among the displaced residents. Her home was significantly damaged, though as of Thursday she was still waiting to hear whether it could be fixed or it would have to be torn down.
“I know what everybody is going through, so it’s gotten me thinking like a homeowner,” she said.
Mebius and her husband, Kevin, have three young children, all of whom took cover beneath the stairs of the family’s basement when the tornado ripped through their neighborhood.
“I still had my family at the end of the storm,” she said. “And all of Wessington Springs still has their family.”
Now, Mebius and her family are staying in a camper outside her in-laws’ home in Wessington Springs, and plan to move into the home with her in-laws soon.
“They’ve taken in a family of five and a dog, no questions asked,” she said.
After the tornado, Mebius said several people offered her and her family a place to stay, but Mebius turned them down.
“I just felt there were people who probably needed them more than we did,” she said.
Eventually, Mebius said her family would like to repair or rebuild their damaged home.
“We want to get started on that next phase,” she said. “I would think most people are ready to start that next phase and figure out what is best for their family and move forward.”
Linda Wenzel, co-owner of Pheasant Hills Lodge, a hunting lodge west of Wessington Springs, said she and her husband, Gary, offered to let those displaced by the tornado stay at the lodge.
“It’s so devastating,” Linda Wenzel said. “They have nowhere to go. It was just such a need.”
Two people, a husband and wife, whose home was destroyed in the tornado will be staying at the lodge this fall, after it gets too cold for the couple to stay in their camper, Wenzel said. The lodge has room for as many as 18 people.
“If there are more that are going to need it come winter, we’ll definitely offer it to them,” she said.
Help from the state
Gov. Dennis Daugaard, at a news conference June 26 in Wessington Springs, said he would promote the Governor’s House program for the town’s residents who qualify. The program provides affordable homes to low-income applicants and starts at $39,800, plus taxes, for a two-bedroom home.
Residents who apply for the Governor’s House program and need a waiver from the income restrictions will be given flexibility, said Tony Venhuizen, Daugaard’s spokesman, in an email.
Daugaard also is using $100,000 from the South Dakota Housing Opportunity Fund, which is meant to expand the supply of affordable housing for families with low to moderate incomes, to allow affected homeowners to apply for grants of up to $5,000 to pay for expenses not covered by insurance, according to Venhuizen.
Several modular home manufacturers in South Dakota are also offering to work with residents affected by the tornado, and Venhuizen said the state is making that information readily available.
As of Thursday, nearly $80,000 had been donated to the Wessington Springs Relief Fund to help tornado victims. A committee formed this week will meet this month to decide exactly how the money will be distributed to victims, Mebius said.
Mebius said she and other residents are extremely grateful for the support the town has received.
“It’s more appreciated than words can say,” she said.