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$100M in McCook County damage. Federal aid is expected, but 'everything can be replaced,' official says

McCook County Emergency Manager is feeling lucky after the only injury reported in a May 12 derecho was a banged elbow.

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McCook County has established two debris piles in Salem where residents can dump their debris from a May 12, 2022, derecho at no cost. Here, a car has been placed in front of the debris pile for comparison purposes.
Photo illustration by Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic
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SALEM, S.D. — A banged elbow and more than $100 million in damage.

That’s what McCook County officials believe to be the results of a massive derecho that swept through the area on Thursday, May 12, 2022.

“I’ve heard all these stories where guys are coming in and whipping into their machine sheds to get their doors shut. They get back into their truck and they lay down, they wake up and the other half of their building is gone,” said B.J. Stiefvater, emergency manager of McCook County. “With the amount of destruction we’ve seen, I don’t know how somebody didn’t die through that event.”

Stiefvater, who has worked in the county’s emergency management department for roughly 12 years, is responsible for surveying the county to create a damage report. Though he still has a couple more days to complete his report, the derecho, which he said was different than storms he’s seen before, has tallied up to over $100 million in damage.

“It’s the same thing as a tornado, but instead of upright, it’s horizontal with 100 mph-plus winds in places. I’ve never seen anything like that happen, ever,” Stiefvater said. “The last time we were kicking it around we said it could easily be over $100 million.”

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With McCook County composed of primarily agricultural lands — with a few small towns sprinkled in — that figure added up quickly, due to the expensive nature of agricultural structures and equipment.

“These hog buildings cost between $1-2 million a piece, and every single of them got hit to some extent,” Stiefvater said. “About half of them were completely destroyed in the immediate area around Salem.”

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Once contained in a hog barn at a farm west of Montrose, these pigs are now exposed to the elements after a May 12 derecho ripped their shelter in half.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

In addition to 21 tipped semis and countless toppled outbuildings, Stiefvater noted that while residents were without power and cell service for days, safeguards protected against critical failure for some important utilities.

“Nothing really super significant, outside of power, was damaged as far as infrastructure goes. After 9/11, a lot of grants were created to support infrastructure as far as terrorist attacks. Local governments started [installing] generators for courthouses, lift stations and other infrastructure systems, so if the power goes out, then water, gas and other criticals will still operate,” Stiefvater said. “That night when the power went out, everything started kicking on as far as generators.”

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Once standing 1,500 feet above McCook County, this antenna tower was toppled in a May 12 derecho that brought winds of nearly 100 mph to much of the county.
Submitted photo

To the south of Interstate 90, a 1,500-foot-tall antenna tower was toppled. Other cell towers sustained damage.
“Our entire county, from end to end, everyone was affected by this,” Stiefvater said. “McCook County probably has a higher dollar value [of damage sustained] than any other county.”

Despite the damage, Stiefvater, a 20-year paramedic who owns and operates McCook County Emergency Medical Services, is grateful to report there were no injuries or deaths in the area.

“The only thing we really had, and I don’t really classify it as an injury, is one guy, who wasn’t wearing a seat belt, fell into the passenger seat when his semi tipped and hurt his elbow,” Stiefvater said. “Everything can be replaced, except for people.”

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After speaking at a press conference in Sioux Falls, Gov. Kristi Noem arrived in Salem to speak with McCook County emergency manager BJ Stiefvater following a derecho that struck eastern South Dakota on May 12, 2022.
Photo courtesy of the McCook County Office of Emergency Management

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Federal aid possible after Noem, Biden review

Acquiring federal aid is a process that begins at the local level, but McCook County officials are confident that help is on the way.

According to Stiefvater, a disaster declaration must first be made at the local level, with a local government determining the scope of the damage is beyond the means of the local government to handle. Following a local declaration, an appeal must be made to a state’s governor, who then must seek the signature of the President of the United States.

Though residents and local governments may be hurting in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, federal aid can take up to two-and-a-half months to reach those who need it.

Just one day after the storm, on May 13, the McCook County Commission called an emergency meeting to declare a disaster on the local level. According to Stiefvater, the county needed to record $32,000 in damage — a number now known to be far exceeded.

After local governments wrap up their reports, which are due two weeks following their declaration, the state has 30 days to review damage reports and determine whether or not the damage reached a $1.5 million threshold.

Tony Mangan, public information officer for the South Dakota Department of Public Safety, said Gov. Kristi Noem’s declaration of an emergency on May 13 is a separate move from a disaster declaration. He said Noem will decide if federal aid is necessary within 30 days of receiving local reports.

If Noem does declare a disaster of more than $1.5 million in damage, the declaration would be sent to Washington, D.C., where President Joe Biden would consider signing a disaster declaration, opening the door for federal funds to be disbursed to South Dakota.

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BJ Stiefvater, emergency manager of McCook County, estimated that damage in his jurisdiction could total more than $100 million, but shared he's amazed no injuries were reported.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

“It won’t be a question of if,” Stiefvater said firmly. “It’s just that the process takes time.”

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Three types of federal funding could be disbursed, depending on what Noem decides to apply for. Individual assistance could help residents and households rebuild, temporarily relocate or temporarily secure food or unemployment benefits. Public assistance could provide funding for debris removal, utility repairs, cleanup of public grounds or repair of public buildings. Last, hazard mitigation assistance could reimburse governments or certain non-profits for expenses incurred by preventing exacerbation of damage or loss of life.

Until any form of federal funding can arrive, Stiefvater said local volunteers and non-profits such as the Red Cross or church groups have been volunteering to help area residents clean up their properties.

As a public service, two debris sites have been set up in Salem. Area residents are encouraged to add their debris to the pile at 135 Douglass St., as the second pile is full. Area farmers are encouraged to bury what debris they can in accordance with environmental safety guidelines.

In an effort to mitigate the delays farmers are facing in connection with the damaging storm and other adverse soil conditions, Noem signed an executive order Monday allowing farmers to move over-width equipment on public roads from two hours before sunrise to two hours after sunset.

Updates on relief funds and other storm-related impacts can be directed to the county or state offices of emergency management.

Dunteman covers general and breaking news as well as crime in the Mitchell Republic's 17-county coverage area. He grew up in Harrisburg, and has lived in South Dakota for over 20 years. He joined the Mitchell Republic in June 2021 after earning his bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He can be reached at HDunteman@MitchellRepublic.com, or on Twitter @HRDunt.
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