Tornado rips through South Dakota town

WESSINGTON SPRINGS, S.D. -- John Berens was taking pictures with his iPad when his wife Pat yelled at him to get to the basement. He saw a white car across the street get lifted 6 feet in the air, and he knew it was time to take cover. "It was ju...

Wessington Springs residents make their way down Main Street after a tornado hit the community in central South Dakota on Wednesday evening. (Sean Ryan / Forum News Service)

WESSINGTON SPRINGS, S.D. -- John Berens was taking pictures with his iPad when his wife Pat yelled at him to get to the basement.

He saw a white car across the street get lifted 6 feet in the air, and he knew it was time to take cover.

"It was just like they say about a freight train," he said, recalling the noise of the tornado. "The house is gone. I have a four wheeler and I don't know where that ended up."

Berens and his wife, Pat, were among many in Wessington Springs who suffered devastation from a tornado that sliced through the southeast part of the city at about 7:30 p.m. Wednesday. Early reports indicated there were no life-threatening injuries. Wessington Springs is in central South Dakota, about 100 miles northwest of Sioux Falls.

Dedrich Koch, the Jerauld County state's attorney, said 11 houses had extensive damage and will be uninhabitable. Three businesses are gone -- Springs Auto, the American Legion and Prairie Lounge, and the Hideout Bar and Grill. Minor damage was suffered at a nursing home, but Koch said there were no injuries there.


There were at least four nearby rural sites with tornado damage, including locations that lost outbuildings and suffered damage to homes. A woman reportedly was trapped under debris near Alpena, but Koch said the woman's injuries were not life-threatening.

The entire city of Wessington Springs lost electrical power Wednesday night. About a third of the town had some sort of direct impact from the tornado, according to the South Dakota National Guard.

Koch said there was a propane tank in town that lost its cap and was slowly leaking, but law enforcement was monitoring that as darkness fell on the city.

The Spring Creek Hutterite Colony, 18 miles southwest of Wessington Springs, lost a turkey barn and suffered major damage to another barn.

Koch said the priority Wednesday night was to secure the city's perimeter and make sure all people were accounted for. Temporary light systems were being placed throughout the city.

"We want to keep people from getting in and out," Koch said. "People are going to want to come back to their homes and we want to make sure there's nothing dangerous out there before we do that."

The entrance point for the tornado was the corner of Dakota Avenue and state Highway 34 on the south side of Wessington Springs. From there, the tornado moved northeast toward the Wessington Springs Elementary School. Minimal damage was reported there, according to Koch. Sirens sounded, and eyewitnesses said local police and firefighters drove up and down the streets to alert people ahead of the tornado's arrival.

Late Wednesday night, the fire hall was operating as the town's emergency command center. At 10 p.m., supplies started to roll in, including bottles of water. The South Dakota National Guard was organizing efforts to search the city and make sure areas were safe. Another emphasis was to clean the streets, which were littered with debris in the northeast part of the city. Koch said he hoped cleanup would start early Thursday.


At the Humm Dinger convenience store at the center of town, owner Jason Zacher was pumping gas. That was thanks to local electrician Greg Heil and his generator.

"We're just making sure we can get gas to those who need it," Zacher said.

Zacher gave a couple of Diet Cokes to Berens, who lost his house and two garages at 608 E. Main. The Berenses have lived in Wessington Springs for eight years.

"It puts Wessington Springs on the map," Berens said. "Not in a good way, I guess."

Heil echoed what other eyewitnesses in the town said.

"It could have been so much worse," he said. "It really could have."

Kim Christensen was driving his four-wheeler through town to survey the damage, because he didn't want to puncture a tire on his vehicle.

Wood, tin, nails and other debris -- the remains of homes and businesses no longer standing -- lay strewn throughout the streets. Despite the structural damage, Christensen said the town's people remained mostly physically unscathed.


"Everybody seems to be OK, as far as I know," he said.

Christensen, a city council member, said he was sitting on the other side of town, taking pictures when the twister hit.

"I didn't see it hit, but I could see the stuff in the rotation," Christensen said. "That was close enough for me. I'm not a storm chaser."

He estimated the storm hit close to the National Weather Service's prediction, which timed the tornado's arrival at 7:30 p.m.

"Whenever they said it was going to be here, believe me, it was here," Christensen said.

The tornado knocked down power lines, collapsed some homes and ripped the roofs off others.

"There's houses that are completely leveled," Christensen said. "A lot of damage. A lot of debris."

Wednesday's tornado was the second to hit Wessington Springs in the past 11 years. In 2003, a tornado skipped across town, leaving a destroyed baseball grandstand, a badly damaged church and several other damaged structures in its wake.

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