Tornadoes, flooding pummel cattle producers
June 30, 2014
People on the Plains have been through hell and high water this week.
Severe thunderstorms, including tornadoes, hail and heavy rains have caused extensive damage in Nebraska and South Dakota. Several tornadoes touched down in Nebraska and South Dakota in the last week, killing two people and hundreds of cattle and causing damage that hasn't been estimated yet. According to some accounts, more than 8 inches of rain fell in northwestern South Dakota, washing out major highways and destroying corrals and barns. As of Thursday afternoon, one woman who had disappeared in the floodwaters north of Belle Fourche, S.D. had not been found. Interstate 29 near Sioux City, Iowa was closed Thursday because of potential flooding of the Big Sioux River. Highways 85 and 73 in western South Dakota were closed due to damage and excess water. Several hailstorms passed through the area, dropping hail that made golf balls look small.
But the farmers and ranchers are giving thanks that it wasn't worse, and moving on.
"It's a good story because it is about people helping people," said Sara Thompson who, along with husband Chad and three young boys operates Thompson Show Steers near Wessington Springs, S.D., in the south central part of the state.
Sara and the boys waited out the tornado in the basement, under a futon mattress, and didn't look outside until Chad came home. "It sounded like a high pitched squeal, and our ears were popping," she said. "When we came up to use the bathroom, we couldn't see out the windows because they were so covered in dirt." When Chad arrived home soon afterward, they all surveyed the extreme damage. "The barn was gone, everything was gone. The camper was gone, working chutes, tubs, alleys were destroyed. Cattle were wandering around bellering. It was horrible." The house was the only structure left standing but it endured damage and the family has not stayed in it since the storm.
A few head of cattle had to be euthanized and a few others were taken to the local butcher shop, she said.
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The Thompsons had planned to ship a load of finished cattle the day following the tornado and thanks to the amazing help of neighbors and friends, the cattle were loaded and hauled away as planned. "We have awesome friends that came and helped us gather them out of the trees and everywhere else the next day. We had so much help, it is overwhelming."
Jerry Kusser, a rancher near Highmore, S.D., said, "We have the best neighbors in the world." With the sound of tractors in the background, and Kusser giving directions between answering questions, he said a massive cleanup effort was underway less than 24 hours after a tornado struck the area, leveling farms and ranches. "We lost a house and a half, four 55,000-bushel grain bins, three major buildings, and it tore out fence and feed yards for a mile. There's tractors and grain wagons that have been blown half a mile. It's unbelievable. Trees are gone, we've had to put down cattle and calves that broke their legs. We're moving cattle and doing this and doing that. We're trying to get all the household goods out, hauling grain to town, doing a million things."
Brian Bergeleen is an agent with Farm Bureau Financial Services in Wessington Springs, S.D., a town that was hit by a tornado Wednesday evening. Several homes and businesses were destroyed, with more damaged. He said he's seeing a lot of familiar faces and a lot of strangers in the town—people pulling together to help out. "I see a lot of faces that grew up in the Springs area or lived there at one time. I also see a lot of faces that I don't recognize. They just heard about it and came to help out."
Bergeleen, who was the mayor of Wessington Springs for 12 years, was speaking from a farm where the family lost nearly everything except the house—the barn, fences, sheds and some cattle. "They had a boat and a camper. Still don't know where the boat is. The camper is in the trees. It was a vicious storm," he said. The family was in the basement when the tornado hit.
Bergeleen's home was on the other end of town, but he said, "When you see insulation coming down on your lawn you know something bad happened."
The tornado passed through the southern edge of town, then headed north and east. "It skipped over one young farmer's place, and took the next one in its path. I don't know how far it went before it quit. Not a good day," Bergeleen said.
Few injuries were reported from the tornadoes in the area. Bergeleen attributes the limited human casualties to the warning system. "They blew the whistle four times before the tornadoes hit," Bergeleen said. "Everyone took shelter. They went to the courthouse or the hospital or somebody's basement."
"I've seen something like it on TV. That's where you expect to see these things. When it's in your own back yard it's hard to handle," he said.
Though some are having a hard time believing it happened, their hands aren't idle. "Everybody just started looking around," Bergeleen said. "You almost can't believe what you're looking at. Everybody's got the attitude that we've got to clean it up. We've got a lot of help both witin the community and outside the community. That's the plan, to just get it done."
He said the smell of propane was strong throughout the town immediately after the tornado, and safety was the first priority. The South Dakota National Guard and Red Cross were helping out, and making sure looting wasn't an issue.
In Pilger, Neb., a town of 350 with grain bins on Main Street, much of the town is a total loss from a tornado—one of two only a mile apart—that tore through on Monday, leveling much of the town and killing two people. A nearby feedlot, Herman Dinklage, Inc., which typically runs about 7,500 cattle, lost hundreds of cattle, as well as all the buildings and facilities. Angie Lange, from nearby Scribner, Neb. rode with her husband, Aaron, when he volunteered to help haul cattle out of the damaged feed yard.
"The vision when we pulled in was completely unbelievable. Everything was destroyed. There was nothing. You could see out in the yards there were cattle that had not made it through the storm and were laying there. There were others that were so injured that the lot guys were having to put them down."
Lange said the last she heard they were estimating that about 400 cattle died in that feed yard, but many other farms and ranches were affected by the tornadoes.
The cattle Lange saw, she said, had died from what looked like injuries caused by flying debris. "They had been struck by something. One had a 2-by-4 embedded in it. Something flew by one cow so close that it shaved the hair off its back. There are no words. Unbelievable is the word Aaron and I have come up with."
Lange was there the evening after the tornadoes struck, and she said relief and cleanup efforts were already in motion. "To me it was sobering, but all the people out there were working, everyone had just pulled together. A few people were just standing there like they were in shock, but the majority of the people were just in there doing what needed to be done. It was awesome to see the teamwork and everyone pulling together to do what needed to be done to help out. There were no strangers. Everyone had something in common and everyone was working together to get the cattle to a safe area."
While some were dealing with hell, others were fighting high water.
Mary Crago, who raises cattle and horses with her husband, Chuck, about 18 miles northwest of Belle Fourche, S.D., located in extreme Western South Dakota, updated friends and family on Facebook during the night of June 17 and early morning of June 18. "We have huge flooding here. Worst ever! Its up in our entry way. All barns and pens are flooded. It's bad. Anyone on Indian Creek north of Belle – warn them it's coming hard and fast," she posted.
In a phone interview, her daughter, Courtney Worthington of Morgan Mill, Texas, said her mom heard a "horrible noise" outside, which ended up being barn kittens complaining loudly about the rising water at about 10 p.m. "Mom looked outside and saw the grain shed floating down the creek." Worthington said her mom's large living-quarters horse trailer was hooked to the pickup and the whole rig was moving downstream. "They did what they could to open pens and run horses out without being swept away themselves. The water was waist deep in some places and the corrals were completely underwater."
The Cragos returned to the house to find water already seeping into their entry way. Later in the evening, Mary went back out to check on some horses they hadn't reached at first. "Mom couldn't stand the thought of those horses being locked in the pens." Worthington said Mary caught one of the ranch mares and led her into a pen of two-year-old mares, then back out again, and the younger mares swam after the older one to higher ground and safety.
Worthington said mares, stallions and yearlings were all turned together in an effort to save their lives. They don't think they lost any horses, but are still checking cattle and horses in pastures, and weren't available for comment. Their corrals, outbuildings, machinery and hay were all destroyed in the flash flood.
Worthington said her dad called the situation "horrible," saying he'd never seen water go over Highway 85 where it did.