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Updated tornado tally: 43 homes, 12 businesses damaged in Wessington Springs

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Updated tornado tally: 43 homes, 12 businesses damaged in Wessington Springs
Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

WESSINGTON SPRINGS -- The damage toll rose Thursday as state and local authorities worked to assess the situation in Wessington Springs, a town of fewer than 950 people, in the aftermath of a tornado that tore through the southern half of the town shortly before 8 p.m. Wednesday.

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The tornado scattered debris everywhere and damaged at least 43 homes, at least 26 of which are uninhabitable, according to updated numbers released Thursday by Jerauld County State’s Attorney Dedrich Koch, who is acting as a spokesman for the response effort.

“The actual number is quite a bit higher. I’m sure of that,” Koch said in an interview Thursday with The Daily Republic.

Wessington Springs Mayor Melissa Mebius, whose own home was destroyed, said she also believes the toll will likely continue to rise as more damage is uncovered in the next few days.

“There are a lot more houses that no one is going to be able to live in for quite a while,” Mebius said. “It’s going to take our community pulling together, because there’s a lot of damage and we’re definitely going to have to come together.”

Koch said structural engineers arrived in the town Thursday and started the process of assessing each of the houses affected by the storm to better determine which could be repaired and which will have to be torn down.

Twelve businesses were damaged and at least three were completely destroyed, including Springs Auto, the American Legion/Prairie Lounge and the Hideout Bar and Grill, Koch said.

The cleanup process is likely to continue for weeks.

“Once we get in and start working, the big chunks will happen pretty fast,” Koch said. “But then we’re going to be cleaning up little stuff for quite a while.”

Despite the extent of the damage, only two people suffered any significant injuries, a husband and wife -- Linda and Ronny Kopfmann -- at a farm near Alpena that was leveled in the storm. Both were treated at a local hospital for injuries that were not life threatening, Koch said.

“We’ve been extremely fortunate with the extent of damages we’ve seen here that we didn’t have any loss of life,” he said. “In town here, all we had were some scrapes.”

According to the National Weather Service in Sioux Falls, the path of the tornado that hit Wessington Springs was approximately two miles long and 30 yards wide with wind speeds as high as 127 mph. The Weather Service rated the tornado as an EF-2, the fourth most severe rating on a scale from EF-0, the lowest rating, to EF-5, the highest rating.

Thursday, emergency responders worked to restore basic services to the town. Electricity was restored in a few areas of the town Thursday afternoon and Koch said work on the town’s infrastructure will continue over the next few days.

In other areas of the town more heavily damaged, Koch said power may take longer to restore.

“There are numerous downed lines,” he said. “It’s going to take some time to get that back online.”

Gov. Dennis Daugaard arrived in Wessington Springs on Wednesday night after the storm had passed and returned Thursday to survey the damage and meet with residents. There was also already a sizable National Guard presence in the town Thursday.

Daugaard praise the response of residents, as well as all the police, firefighters and emergency responders, and credited the early warning for the lack of significant injuries in the tornado.

“I want to say how proud I am to be the governor of a state with a community like we have in Wessington Springs,” he said.

Koch said many of the town’s residents were still in shock Thursday morning, but most are handling the disaster relatively well.

“We’re going to pull through this in good shape,” he said. “This is a tight community and they do pull together well.”

Donations can be made to a relief fund established Thursday at American Bank and Trust, which has locations in Wessington Springs, Alpena, De Smet, Huron, Mellette, Miller, Pierre and Wolsey, and should be directed to the Wessington Springs Relief Fund.

Daugaard said the state plans to combine all the damage from this storm system, which began moving through the state on Sunday, and will request a presidential disaster declaration, which would make federal funding available for emergency relief and reconstruction.

Wessington Springs residents and their immediate families were allowed to return to their homes -- or what was left of their homes -- to recover personal items they may want and begin cleaning up.

Janice Bender, who lives in southern Wessington Springs, returned to her partially destroyed home Thursday with her family and began cleaning up the debris, which was especially heavy in that area of town.

Though a large portion of Bender’s home was still standing Thursday, at least one room was blown away. When the tornado came, Bender was in the basement of her home with her husband, Dave, and dog, Molly, all of whom escaped without injury.

The noise, she said, was almost unbearable.

“My ears felt like they were going to explode,” she said. “Then it was done in a split second.”

Despite the devastation that surrounded her home, Bender was optimistic the town would recover.

“This town is amazing with this kind of stuff,” she said.

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