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U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., listens during a roundtable meeting held Monday at Avera Weskota Memorial Hospital in Wessington Springs. (Marcus Traxler/Republic)

Tornado victims and Sen. Johnson: Preparations paid off

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news Mitchell, 57301
Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

WESSINGTON SPRINGS -- U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., praised the preparedness and response of emergency officials Monday in Wessington Springs after the June 18 tornado hit the town.

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During a 30-minute roundtable meeting at Avera Weskota Memorial Hospital, which is located about a block away from the tornado's path, Johnson asked about the immediate response to the tornado and what officials did to prepare for the storm.

"The secret to all of this, as bad as it was, was to be prepared," Johnson said.

Gaea Blue, the hospital's administrator, said physicians and nurses were in place should they be needed for serious injuries, but that was never the case.

"We get tornado warnings fairly frequently and we often times shrug them off," said Tom Dean, a family physician at the hospital and the clinic in Wessington Springs. "They were able to convince people that these were for real, and it paid off."

Blue said she was thankful there was not more damage to the hospital or nursing home, considering the tornado was, as she described it, "two houses away." Both the hospital and nursing home are expected to need new roofs, she said.

An initial damage assessment has been conducted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and officials are expected to return to the city in two weeks to collect more data.

Johnson said his office would be as helpful as possible to the community, even though the scope of damage to public infrastructure was limited. Central Electric Cooperative has estimated the damage to the city's power poles at $30,000, according to county Emergency Manager Roger Dwyer. Mebius said another aspect of damage that has emerged is the beating the city's residential streets took when National Guard trucks and military vehicles rumbled through the town for more than three days following the storm.

"Those are just some of the things that you don't think about when a storm hits and you consider cleaning up your community," Mebius said.

Johnson also asked about the rural damage. Jerauld County Sheriff Jason Weber said the EF2 tornado that hit Wessington Springs and the EF4 tornado that destroyed the rural Alpena farmsite of Ronny and Linda Kopfmann were separate, according to National Weather Service officials. In all, six farms had damage resulting from the storm.

No count of Wessington Springs homes damaged by the storm is official yet, but Weber told Johnson that the number is close to 50. Some of the homes that officials initially believed could be repaired will not be able to be fixed, Weber said.

Johnson, who has served in the Senate since 1997, said the damage was somewhat similar in nature to the tornado that leveled Spencer in 1998, with snapped-off trees and destruction in the neighborhoods where the storm hit.

"Spencer is a much smaller community, but the trees look exactly like they did there," he said.

Mebius said three businesses -- Jerry's Motor Clinic, the VFW and Springs Auto -- are expected to rebuild. A fourth business, the Hideout Bar and Grill, has yet to make a decision regarding its future.

He also recognized the elderly citizens of the community may have the hardest time rebuilding their homes because they may not have the money to take out a mortgage for a new home when they were planning on retirement with a limited budget.

The senator was impressed with the response of the South Dakota National Guard, emergency personnel and volunteer fire departments, some showing up without being called.

"They all came out right away," he said. "That's the way we do things in South Dakota."

Volunteer center moved

Officials have moved the Wessington Springs volunteer center for the recovery effort to Our Savior's Lutheran Church. Previously located at the Wessington Springs Elementary School, the center will coordinate volunteers in the area and also house counseling services and a lost and found area for items found in the cleanup.

Mebius said Monday that groups are still welcome to volunteer but should call ahead to make sure there are locations available for them to help. The number for the volunteer center is (605) 212-9605.

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