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Years later, FEMA officials return to scene of Spencer tornado

Former FEMA Regional Director Rick Weiland reads a monument recognizing those who died in the Spencer tornado on May 30, 1998. Weiland visited Spencer Monday as part of a tour in support of the Hillary Clinton campaign for president. (Evan Hendershot/Republic)1 / 2
Former FEMA Director James Lee Witt, left, and former FEMA Regional Director Rick Weiland, right, return to Spencer Monday, where they responded to the May 30, 1998 tornado 18 years ago. (Evan Hendershot/Republic)2 / 2

SPENCER — The town of Spencer looks nothing like the place two FEMA veterans visited 18 years ago.

On Monday, former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director James Lee Witt and former FEMA Regional Director and U.S. Senate candidate Rick Weiland returned to Spencer for the first time since 2002, four years after a tornado decimated the small town about 20 miles east of Mitchell in 1998.

It was a breezy afternoon when Witt and Weiland arrived in Spencer, but the winds couldn't come close to the 220 mph winds that killed six people and annihilated most of the town's 190 buildings just before the two FEMA officials arrived on scene 18 years ago.

Witt, who guided the agency through 348 disasters over eight years, said the Spencer tornado was on the higher end of his list of worst disasters while in office. Despite the vicious tornado that left the town in ruins nearly two decades ago, Witt arrived in Spencer to see a town on the rebound.

Aside from a monument outside the town's post office, there are few signs a tornado ever rolled through Spencer on the night of May 30, 1998. But Witt noticed one slight difference.

"Well, there's more trees," Witt said.

It was the pair's first trip back to Spencer since Weiland's 2002 campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives, but Witt and Weiland's visit was more than a trip down memory lane.

Witt and Weiland spent Monday touring about 10 South Dakotans towns and cities in preparation for Thursday's presidential primaries in the state with the hope to spread their high praise of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

While speaking of the town's resilience in the wake of the tornado that injured about 150 people, the two former FEMA officials appointed by President Bill Clinton spoke of the presidential candidate whose administration they believe would best respond to disasters like the one that devastated Spencer less than two decades ago.

"I went to several disaster events with Hillary, and her compassion about people really comes out when she's there," Witt said. "And I think she would appoint the right people in the agencies just like Bill Clinton did."

When Witt and Weiland arrived in Spencer 18 years ago, trees were uprooted, homes were flattened and lives were lost, but both saw a town on the mend during Monday's visit.

The two met with locals at the town's bank to discuss the tornado, the aftermath and look at photographs of the devastation the twister left behind. Witt and Weiland also shared stories about former Gov. Bill Janklow's response to the incident and former Vice President Al Gore's visit to Spencer following the natural disaster.

Like Witt, Weiland said Hillary Clinton's ability to appoint quality, experienced officials is key to disaster response in the United States.

"We both believe that government can make a huge difference when you've got the right people in it," Weiland said. "It's all about helping people."

With Clinton earning enough delegates to clinch the Democratic nomination for president, Weiland couldn't help but look toward November's presumed race between Clinton and Republican Donald Trump.

"Donald Trump's focused on how he's going to get that wall built, how's he going to take care of disasters in the United States?" Weiland asked.