(USA Today) A tornado tore through this small Jerauld County town late Wednesday, leaving a trail of destruction but no fatalities or serious injuries.
The National Weather Service issued a tornado warning at 7:25 p.m. Wednesday for the county, including Wessington Springs, a small town of about 1,000 people 125 miles northwest of Sioux Falls. At 7:45 p.m., based on law enforcement reports, a tornado "went right through the heart of town," meteorologist Todd Heitkamp said.
All of the town's residents were accounted for and only one person had to be treated for injuries at the local hospital, according to Jerauld County State's Attorney Dedrich Koch, who was serving as spokesman for the disaster mitigation team.
"At this point, what we're doing is we're organizing for tomorrow. We are securing the damaged areas tonight, locking those down," Koch said. "We'll assess damages and worry about cleanup in the morning."
The town's emergency sirens gave residents significant advance notice to the threat, Koch said. About 30 to 40 people waited out the storm in the nuclear fallout shelter in the basement of the Jerauld County courthouse.At least 11 homes are damaged to the point of being uninhabitable, Koch said. Three businesses on the south end of town also were a total loss.
Laura Baker of Wessington Springs heard the warnings and was in her basement when the tornado rumbled through town.
"It kind of sounded like a freight train," Baker said.
After the storm passed, she watched the neighbor kids for a few hours while her neighbor joined volunteers offering help to those who needed it.
Baker was just leaving her home for the first time around 10:30 p.m., in search of generators in hopes of saving inventory at the flower shop she runs.
The storm knocked out electricity to the town, and power was left off through the night as a safeguard for emergency responders.
Avera Health has a hospital and nursing home in Wessington Springs, both of which sustained minor damage, including a few broken windows, according to vice president of public relations Lindsey Meyers.
"I just talked to our folks who are at the hospital there," Meyers said. "There's quite a bit of debris. The town is on lockdown."
Two Avera facilities were operating on emergency backup power and Avera Weskota Memorial Hospital was staffed and ready to accept patients. As of 10 p.m. Wednesday, it had only seen one patient for storm-related injuries.
That injury occurred on a farm outside of town, Koch said. A woman was trapped in a farm house that had been damaged in the storm until first responders were able to rescue her and get her to the hospital. She was in good condition late Wednesday.
The same tornado that ravaged Wessignton Springs then traveled east, narrowly missing the towns of Lane, Alpena and Woonsocket.
Woonsocket experienced a close call but ended up going untouched by the tornado.
Mayor Lindy Peterson said the tornado passed close enough that his neighbor was able to see it on the horizon from Highway 34.
When the tornado warning was issued, Woonsocket's emergency whistle went off to warn residents.
"We just got some big drops of rain and some dark clouds. We can be thankful for that," Peterson said.
Meanwhile, friends in Wessington Springs weren't as fortunate. Peterson and his wife called friends there and know at least one family whose home was damaged.
"We're trying to let them gather themselves and we'll see if we can help them later," Peterson said.
Numerous volunteers, fire departments and other first responders converged on the town in the hours after the event. Gov. Dennis Daugaard ordered 100 National Guard soldiers to assist with the recovery. Daugaard arrived in Wessington Springs with a team late Wednesday.
The Red Cross had set up a shelter for people who lost their home and didn't have friends or relatives to stay with. Koch said it was to give specifics on when and how the town will need more assistance.
"We haven't really had an opportunity to get out there and put the eyes on the actual damages," Koch said.
Wednesday's tornado was the second in as many days to hit the area.
Residents near Humboldt spent Wednesday picking through wreckage after a tornado came through the night before.
Two homes and a few other structures were destroyed when the EF-2 tornado, with winds of 125 mph, hit the rural community west of Sioux Falls around 10:30 p.m. Tuesday. The tornado was on the ground for about 18 minutes and traveled just under 3.5 miles, according to the National Weather Service.
Meanwhile, Union County in southeast South Dakota was preparing for a "100-year flood incident" Daugaard said in a news conference Wednesday.
Daugaard said National Guard troops were en route to Union County to assist in preparation and relief from inevitable floodwaters in the Big Sioux River.
State officials are anticipating floodwaters to reach Interstate 29, a portion of which will be closed at approximately noon Thursday.
Flooding was expected to begin near Jefferson and make its way south, Lt. Gov. Matt Michels said.