Friends, neighbors bring tornado relief to South Dakota | TSLN.com

Friends, neighbors bring tornado relief to South Dakota

Maria Tussing
Assistant Editor

Family and friends of all ages showed up to help the Kusser family with the cleanup required by the tornado that nearly destroyed the K Lazy K Ranch near Highmore, S.D. Courtesy photo.

A month ago, tornadoes devastated Wessington Springs, S.D. and surrounding areas. While buildings, trees, machinery and homes were destroyed, life is going on, with a little help from friends, neighbors and strangers.

The tornadoes in the small town of Wessington Springs were just a few days after a tornado nearly destroyed Pilger, a small town in Nebraska. Pilger made national news and attracted fundraising efforts nation-wide. Wessington Springs has also gotten some help from national organizations like the Red Cross, and media attention nationwide, but the rural areas, like the farms and ranches around Highmore, S.D. that were hit by tornadoes, are taking care of their own.

"We didn't have the governor or FEMA or the Red Cross or the National Guard here," said Marilyn Kusser Ring, daughter of Simon Kusser, whose family operation, the K Lazy K Ranch was nearly completely wiped out by the tornado near Highmore. "We just had our community. People came that first night and they hauled stuff out of the houses, and they put in 13 or 14 new rafters and the plastic and plywood on the house that night in the rain. It saved the family home that's been here for 91 years."

Ring said they realize how far-reaching family and community ties are in situations like this. A distant cousin in Minneapolis, John Kutz, who grew up in the area and is good friends with the family, started a fundraiser on gofundme.com to provide some immediate cash for the family to use however they needed to.

"I'm extremely happy with what we've done to this point. When I set a goal of $10,000 I thought it was a pretty lofty goal. So far we've raised $9,080 through the website." The local bank, Quoin Bank in Highmore, where the Kusser family does business, is also taking donations, and had $2,500 local donations a week ago. "We're well over the $10,000 goal we set originally," Kutz said.

Additional fundraising efforts are underway in Wessington Springs, through the Red Cross and American Bank & Trust. That money will be distributed through a committee of community people, based on need, said Pam Meyer, a case manager with Lutheran Social Services.

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"We've sent volunteers out to help out on the farms. They have helped with cleanup picking, rebuilding fences. Whatever that particular farmer needs," she said.

"Everybody helps everybody in the county. We really appreciated all the volunteers who came in and helped out. Without the volunteers this community would still be in a world of hurt. They've done so much for the community."

At the last report, donations for the Wessington Springs tornado fund totaled about $80,000. However, Wessington Springs and Highmore are about 50 miles apart, and since the tornado near Highmore didn't hit any population centers, the devastation there hasn't drawn much attention.

Ring said the National Weather Service documented the tornado that hit the K Lazy K Ranch as an F1, which estimates wind speed at 73-112 miles per hour, and causes moderate damage, such as, "Peels surface off roofs, mobile homes pushed off foundations or overturned, moving autos blown off roads."

"It broke most of the house, but it didn't break anything in my mom's china cabinet," Ring said. "Nothing was broken in there, but the dining room table ended up in the kitchen. There was a 42-foot hopper-bottom grain trailer in the middle of the place and it ended up half a mile north. It took out most of the cattle yards, which are made of guard rail and cable. It snapped off railroad tie posts. We feel like the weather service might have underrated it a little bit."

While the aftermath of the tornado is something few people have seen or dealt with, the friends, neighbors and family are all pitching in. Ring said they've had cousins from across the country show up with two or three generations in tow, ready to help out with whatever they needed, whether that was sorting parts from the shops, or packing up 62 years of mementos from the family home.

In the farm and ranch community, no one wants to ask for help. In situations like this, it works out well because they haven't needed to. Friends and neighbors emptied a damaged grain bin in 14 hours with 10 grain trucks. Red and green tractors baled side-by-side as the neighbors put up the hay. "They just came and they instinctively knew what to do to help you. No one was telling anyone what to do," Ring said.

"They're such an independent family, like so many farming and ranching families in the area," Kutz said. "They've done everything on their own their whole lives, and they don't want to be a charity case. I have their support for this fundraiser, but I don't think they would have let me if I hadn't just gone out and done it on my own."