Heroic tornado warning effort lauded in Wessington Springs
WESSINGTON SPRINGS — Jerauld County Sheriff's Deputy Mike Krueger knew the homes he needed to check.
Along with Wessington Springs Volunteer Fire Department personnel, Krueger went through the city the evening of June 18 and alerted residents of the impending storm via sirens and flashing lights. They split up, with the fire trucks warning those on the course at the Springs Country Club and at the softball diamonds, while Krueger focused on neighborhoods where he knew of homes that didn't have basements or where elderly or disabled residents lived.
"A lot of people were outside, more or less watching, but once the first siren or two went off, it became serious," he said. "The visual of the fire department being out helped a lot. They helped tremendously. I think people listened."
The advance warning of the tornado got residents to shelter before it hit the community and damaged about 50 homes and several businesses. Nobody suffered life-threatening injuries.
Krueger is hesitant to take credit for his role in the storm, an effort that likely made a difference in the storm's zero fatality count.
"I wouldn't say to know that for sure, but we've had a lot of people give us praise for it and maybe it was the difference," Krueger said.
Springs Mayor Melissa Mebius said the area's first responders are too modest.
"They saved lives," she said. "They really did."
Two other county law enforcement officers, Sheriff Jason Weber and Deputy Sheriff Shane Mentzer, were southwest of Wessington Springs looking for funnel clouds prior to the tornado's arrival in town.
County officers were able to sound the storm sirens from their radios that they carry and could relay the messages back to those stationed in the community.
"My guys are awesome," Weber said. "Deputy Mentzer was out there with me. Deputy Krueger was evacuating those who were ignoring the signals. It was very instrumental in ensuring that there were no fatalities."
That camaraderie goes way back for many of the people involved in the storm warnings. Weber said he graduated with Wessington Springs Fire Chief Jim Vavra, and they played together as kids and Vavra was a groomsman in Weber's wedding.
Trained spotters saw the first of the numerous tornadoes that night in Jerauld County around 7 p.m., about 45 minutes before the storm tore through Wessington Springs.
The warning was so far in advance that some of the first responders were able to double-check some locations ahead of the tornado. A handful of campers were located in the city park and Vavra said responders knocked on the doors of those campers and nobody was around.
Those people had already been evacuated to the Jerauld County Courthouse less than two blocks away. At least 40 people were in the building, which is designated as a public shelter. The campers were basically untouched by the tornado.
Krueger was also able to draw on past experience. He was among the officers working when a 2003 tornado came through Springs, damaging the city ballpark grandstand and causing less widespread destruction than the June 18 twister.
Vavra said his department has 30 people and they all were part of the immediate response, even those who suffered damage to their own home.
"We had guys that lost their homes, lost everything, and they were there that night and the next few days," he said.
During this week's meeting with U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., Wessington Springs family physician Tom Dean said the community took the warning seriously and got to shelter, adding that it made a difference in the aftermath.
"You look at those houses and there were people in some of those houses," Dean said. "They couldn't have survived that if they wouldn't have had the warning and gotten into a safe area."