Jan Swan Wood: Story of a storm in ranch and farm country
July 28, 2017
The storm that marched through Butte County and into Meade County of South Dakota was called a Super Cell. It was the biggest thunderstorm in the United States on July 18. It swept in a northwest to southeast route through ranch and farm country and cut a swath through the small town of Newell with up to baseball size hail, heavy rain and 93 mph wind.
I was oblivious to the storm as I was still in Rapid City when it hit. When I left a business and looked to the northeast, I saw a magnificent thunderhead that sparkled with lightning and was obviously a monster on the move. I didn't know it had moved through my neighborhood. I had missed calls and texts from my son so I returned his call to see what was going on and why he was so concerned about my whereabouts.
When I had gotten filled in on what had happened, I headed home to see how bad it was in person. My first encounter with the damage was on the gravel road east of Newell where there were tree limbs and windrows of leaves on the ground. It was dusk so I couldn't see damage to pastures or hayfields. Upon arriving home, the report was minimal damage at the house which included one window with a corner knocked out and damage to the paint on the house. All the stock were okay and my car wasn't damaged even though it was sitting outside.
Well over an inch of much needed rain had fallen, so that was wonderful.
Social media was going wild with reports that night with pictures and videos of the storm so I knew daylight would tell the full story in the area. My neighbor came after breakfast the next morning and we took a drive around town and the countryside. Newell was hammered, no question about it. Windows broken, siding and roofs damaged, trees down, a few buildings ruined, and many windshields and windows of vehicles knocked out. My son's rental house in town sustained broken windows on three sides, suggesting a definite rotation to the storm. Dents were found on the two pickups parked in front of the house, plus each had the passenger side mirror ruined. His semi in the driveway between the houses sustained the most damage, but nothing that isn't repairable with time and effort.
As my neighbor and I drove all over the area, there was a clear line of the storm's path. Fields went from being slightly lodged from the wind and rain to being absolutely gone within sight of each other. Some fields southeast of Newell no longer revealed what had even been planted in them. Road ditches and fields/pastures alike were bare, with the grass pounded deep into the mud. Some fields only proclaimed their purpose with the width of the furrows.
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My own summer/fall pasture looked as though it had been mowed with a lawn mower. My concern over that and the pending shortage of feed, however, was overridden with the horror of what others had lost. The second cutting of alfalfa was being harvested or was ready to be. A few lucky ones had already gotten it baled, thankfully. The ones that weren't yet cut though, told a sad story. In several, the swather that had opened up the outside of the field with three of four rounds, perhaps the day of the storm, was still sitting in place. The windrows were visible but pounded into the ground. The uncut alfalfa was shredded to nothing. The only difference between the cut ground and the uncut was the color tone. In those fields where some still stood, it was damaged beyond salvaging.
Our drive went east of Vale, which was undamaged except for wind and heavy rain. Several miles east of Vale though, it was a different story. Windows were boarded up on the houses, vehicles and machinery had the windows shattered, a camper was blown over a fence and into a draw, and the crops were simply gone. The corn that had stood seven or eight feet tall was shredded. Some still showed a little leaf left, therefore could maybe make sileage. Other fields were just mangled green sticks two feet tall in straight rows.
Two feedlots we passed by had lost their corn and alfalfa both. We talked of the difficulty of operating a feedlot with shortened supplies of feed and wondered how they'd get through it. Obviously, alfalfa will come back for another cutting if it wasn't damaged too badly in the storm. Removing the damaged crop would be necessary for that to happen though.
We passed by a dryland pasture with a nice set of cow/calf pairs standing by the fence. There wasn't a blade of feed left standing for them to eat. The calves looked a little roughed up, especially the younger, lighter calves. They'll recover, of course, but where will they go to graze? Seeing that pasture put me in a better frame of mind over my own loss of grass and the state of my cows. I ached for the owners of those cows though, as did my neighbor.
On one north/south road, we were admiring a nice new fence on one side of a hill. Within that fence was a green, fairly lush irrigated pasture with a few cows chewing their cuds in the shade of a tree. As we passed over a small hill, two vehicles were parked, window to window, with the occupants visiting about the storm, no doubt. One moved on and we passed the other before noticing what lay on both side of the road. Absolute and total devastation. Not a blade of grass left standing in the road ditch and the corn fields on both sides were sticks. I had glimpsed the face of the farmer we passed and I didn't have to wonder if that was his field or not. His grim countenance was enough. The change in vegetation happened in mere hundreds of yards.
We returned to Newell where my neighbor dropped me off at my son's house. There was a news reporter from a Rapid City television station shooting video of the damage to the street past his house. In the background were broken windows, windshields, ruined siding, and tons of leaves and branches laying in the street and on the yards. She eventually worked her way down the street and ended up interviewing my son about the storm and the damage.
I stood inside the screen door and to watch and listen to the interview. He explained what had happened and she asked very intelligent questions. Obviously, the damage to the town and individual's property was very important and heartbreaking and TV viewers could all relate and commiserate with those involved.
When she was done and had shut off her microphone and camera, I stepped outside to talk to her. I told her that as terrible as it was to lose property like windows and suchlike, all those things could and would be replaced and probably pretty quickly. I then told her the story of what the ranch and farmland had suffered and explained that most of those crops were just gone. All the money, work and sweat that had gone into them were gone. Some of that land would lie dormant or nearly so, until next year. Even if the alfalfa recovered, one whole cutting, usually the biggest of the year, was simply gone. Crop insurance would cover parts of it, but certainly not all of it, and certainly wouldn't replace the availability of the crop itself.
I also explained to her that pasture land was unlikely to recover much at all due to the pounding of the soil and the heat of July and August. Ranchers and farmers who were already short of grass now had little or none. Hay that was already scarce due to the drought, was going to be that much harder to find, much less pay for.
After retrieving a local phone book from the house, I gave her the names and numbers of some of the people who I knew for certain had been hit very hard by that storm. I encouraged her to go and talk to them to get the bigger story.
As I watched the news last night, this young woman had a nicely done report on the damage at Newell, including a very brief part with my son. Then, bless her heart, she had listened and gone to see for herself. One of the people who I suggested she talk to was interviewed and given the opportunity to explain how it would affect their feedlot operation and farm in the long run. Two things stick in my mind about that segment of the news story. First, how optimistic this 70 year old, lifelong farmer was about the future of their feedlot and operation in general. Second, how this lovely young woman, in her heeled sandals and short skirt, while standing in a cornfield that was frazzled stalks, told the real story of a storm related disaster in a farming/ranching community. I have a lot of appreciation for both of those people.
Cleanup will continue for weeks, as will insurance adjusters jobs of documenting the damage. The weeds will recover first, as they always do, and then some grass will green up I'm sure. That alfalfa will try to grow again, and much of it may put on a third cutting eventually. My pasture will hopefully use that much needed rain that came with the hail and grow some fresh grass. Life will go on for everyone, and in a few years, the storm will be the talk of coffee shops and two guys meeting on the road on occasion.
I would like to think that a silver lining can be found in this dark cloud of loss. Maybe a little more understanding was found by folks in cities and towns who listened to a young reporter and an older farmer talk about the storm.