Dealing with the aftermath: rural South Dakota communities hit by tornado
Jessica Deering’s voice cracks a little when she talks about the night of Friday, June 19. She tells the story of taking shelter with her husband, Gary, and three young boys under the stairs in the basement of their home near Hereford, S.D. She wondered how she would know if the tornado that had been spotted 7 miles away was approaching their place. When her ears plugged up, she knew.
“I heard things ripping apart, hail hitting the floor. Then there was another round of things ripping apart,” Deering said.
The family stayed in the basement until it sounded like it was safe to investigate. The three boys, Porter, 8, Shea, 6 and Dawson, 4, were petrified, she said.
“They didn’t quit shaking for over an hour. Every time it thundered, my youngest would just scream.”
The calm, sunny morning that dawned seven hours later was a contrast to the chaos it brought to light.
“The next morning the sun came out and the boys were more curious and checking out the damage with us.
“I was really holding it together until I looked up the road and about eight pickups of neighbors were headed down the road,” she said.
Her voice broke again, “Everybody just started grabbing stuff and putting it in piles and moving machinery and getting it done.”
Three days later, their insurance adjuster had already begun the process of evaluating the damages, friends and neighbors had removed many of reminders of what was missing, and they’d gotten started on repairing their house.
“Our sliding glass door had been pushed in on the dining room table. The west side of our roof was ripped off. There was water up to my ankles on the first floor of my house. The light sockets dripped,” Deering said.
One of the more sentimental losses was the big, red barn that had been built by Gary’s great-grandparents a hundred years ago. Some friends from Aberdeen showed up and finished tearing down that barn and removed all the material that was left from it.
The tornado took two machine sheds, leaving the machinery that had been parked inside. It ripped up corrals and a roundpen, demolished grainbins, knocked over gas tanks and wreaked havoc on an established shelterbelt.
But that’s not what they’re dwelling on. Surveying the damage, lucky isn’t one of the words that comes immediately to mind, but Deering said, “Luckily, four and a half years ago we built a house that had a basement.”
While the amount of work ahead of them is daunting, Deering said, “it was the family, neighbors and friends who came and gave us strength. I think we’ve handled it pretty well and it’s because of them that we’ve been able to.”
Ten seconds made the difference between watching a roof land in the yard and lying under it for Ross McPherson, who lives a few miles from the Deerings.
McPherson said it looked like the worst of the storm would miss them, but then decided they might get some hail so he went to park his son-in-law’s pickup in the barn. When he started to get his daughter’s car, it started to rain and hail, and the wind was blowing, so he stayed in the barn and turned the light on so his wife knew where he was.
“The dog was with me—he’s usually under my feet all the time, but he comes in, sits under the table and that’s where he stays the whole time we’re in the barn,” he said. “I wish I could pinpoint what it was, but something was different and I told the dog, ‘We gotta get out of here.’ I stepped out the door and around the corner, and thought that I needed to be ready for all that wind and rain to be blasting me. There was a little tree there and that tree was not even wiggling, it was dead still. I thought that’s probably not good.
“I got the dog with me, and ran as fast as I could go—it took like 15 seconds—no wind, no rain, no nothing. Just as I start up the stairs I hear this huge crash over where I had been. You could hear stuff happening and I could see a bunch of white Styrofoam insulation scattering. The lightning flashed and I could see that.”
The crash was the roof of his daughter’s and son-in-law’s trailer house, which was probably the worst damage their place sustained. The tornado took off about 50 feet of the barn roof and swirled around the river sand that was in the indoor arena, dumping about a quarter-inch of it all over the machinery in the shed.
“It must have been like the ’30s in there for a little while,” McPherson said.
The McPhersons and Ross’s parents, who live at the place as well, waited out the storm in their basements. The daughter and son-in-law weren’t home at the time.
The storm spun around and tipped over a dry van and a bull rack and damaged some sheds. The wind put a 2-by-4 chunk of plywood through the eave of Ross’s parents’ house, and the childrens’ trailer is a mess from all the rain after the roof came off.
“We lost windbreaks, some outbuildings, but it pales in comparison to some of the neighbors,” McPherson said. “It put a few more gray hairs on us, that’s for sure.”
In the days following the storm, the phone was busy as people called and offered help. “If I’d let half the people who called show up, we’d be done,” McPherson said. He put off most of the people, wanting to wait until the ground dried up a little, and to give the insurance adjustor a chance to make it there before they cleaned up the roofs and the big stuff.
Their loan officer with Farm Credit Services in Rapid City, Kyle Smith, called and offered to bring whatever they needed. On Monday morning, he showed up with extra work gloves, paper plates and other practical items.
“That was pretty good of them,” McPherson said.
Right now the McPhersons are busy getting bulls out to pasture, fixing fences that flooded out and making the rounds to help the neighbors who were hit worse.
The tornado, which produced winds of 120-130 miles per hour, was on the ground for 33 minutes and covered 20.8 miles. At its widest point, it was more than four football fields wide, according to reports by Darren Leeds, Black Hills Fox News meteorologist.
The tornado traveled southeast from west of Hereford to just past Elm Springs.
The same storm produced hail more than 6 inches across near Nisland, causing severe damage to homes, vehicles and significant livestock losses in some cases. According to the National Weather Service in Rapid City, one rancher reported that the hail killed 35 sheep, and several other ranchers lost livestock as well.
South of Hereford, downdraft winds of more than 100 miles per hour snapped off utility poles for four miles along New Underwood Road. Downtown Belle Fourche reported 89 mile-per-hour winds.
Two days later a supercell traveled just north of that area, producing at least four tornadoes that touched down in uninhabited areas, baseball-sized hail near Meadow, South Dakota and 70-mile-an-hour winds.
A home sensor in Hayes, S.D. measured 122 mile per hour winds, which caused damage to homes, outbuildings and grainbins in the area.
The pattern of severe thunderstorms continued throughout the week, causing flooding near Rapid City. One storm, in which 2 inches of rain fell, brought the total precipitation for June for Rapid City to almost 7 inches, nearly 5 inches above average for June, with a week left in the month.
Dennis Todey, South Dakota state climatologist, said most of the state has more than recovered from the drought conditions that were worrying folks in March, April and early May. Some areas in southeast South Dakota are still slightly below normal, but most of the western third of the state is between 150 and 200 percent of average precipitation.
He said the official outlook from the climate prediction center is calling for the cooler, wetter than average weather to continue, but for things to warm up and dry out a little more in July. F