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A ‘derecho’ has its long-term effects

Reporter Mikkel Pates describes how the May 12, 2022, derecho wind storm hit close to home. He helped his brother, who farms near Volga, South Dakota, clean up building damage.

Two brothers and their wives take a break from clean-up of a wind-struck farm garage.
Mikkel, Mark, Phyllis and Barbara Pates, take a moment for a selfie as they clean up a garage whose roof was lifted by a May 12, 2022, derecho wind storm and landed in the yard of Stoney Hill Farms, near Volga, South Dakota. Photos taken May 20, 2022.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek
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Definition:Derecho (“də-ˈrā-(ˌ)chō”): A  large, fast-moving complex of thunderstorms with powerful straight-line winds that cause widespread destruction. – Merriam Webster

VOLGA, S.D. — I knew when I got off the phone that I would have to go.

I had called my brother, Mark Pates, about the “derecho” storm that hit the evening of May 12, 2022.

“You guys all right down there?” I asked.

“We’re fine,” said Mark, who farms near Volga, South Dakota. But yes, they had damage. Yes, they’re digging out. We grew up in nearby Brookings.

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Mark, 67, is retired from a career as a mechanic and raises sheep and crops with his wife, Phyllis (Berkland) Pates, on their “Stoney Hill Farm.” They farm with their son, Kevin, and his wife Courtney and their three young children, who live in a separate farmstead about a mile across the section. They raise sheep, corn, soybeans and alfalfa.

“How did the storm go for you?” I asked.

“We were lucky,” Mark said.

A John Deere tractor and a Bobcat skid-steer loader stand poised to dismember the remains of a wind-destroyed garage, flanked by a hoop barn on a farm.
Two hoop barns survived the storm but a garage near Volga, South Dakota, was demolished by 90-plus miles per hour winds in a May 12, 2022, derecho storm that ripped through eastern South Dakota and western Minnesota. Photos taken May 20, 2022.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

'Football' shaped light

Luck is a matter of perspective in things like this. The winds were probably 90 mph or better, probably not much different than winds clocked at 96 mph at Wentworth, South Dakota. A 61-year-old woman died down there because a chunk of wood blasted through the vehicle she was in.

About the same time, Mark and Phyllis were caught in their vehicle, returning from an errand in town. About a mile from home the storm hit. It got pitch black, and they could only see a small, lighted area in their windshield — “the size of a football" — where the headlights converged. Mark was barely able to see the turnoff for their driveway and inched their way toward their double garage. But — happily — they didn’t try to park inside.

As the storm raged, Mark and Phyllis waited it out for 45 minutes, too scared to get out of the car.

When it was all over, the roof of that garage had lifted from its moorings, spun around in some trees and landed in the side yard that they walk through every day. Across the yard, an old hay shed near the barn shifted and collapsed in a heap. Trees were toppled or damaged everywhere, often "root-balled." And of course, there was "tin" everywhere, in the trees.

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Inconvenient.

But they were OK.

Ditto for Kevin, whose family hunkered down in the basement of their farm home. He had gone out to secure things in their new Morton building but stayed there. (Courtney phoned him to ask if he wasn't coming in, but he said he'd wait it out in the barn.)

Always on the hunt for “news,” I asked Mark if he knew of anyone who had bigger farm damage. No specifics. Mark had seen the news of South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem's hometown of Castlewood, South Dakota, where a tornado ripped through the town. He didn’t have anything like that. Nothing like the tornadoes in the Willmar, Minnesota area.

A few nights later, I called Mark again. He described how he and other parishioners had pulled together at the nearby, historic Lake Campbell Lutheran Church, and gathered to remove the row of evergreens out front that had toppled and blocked access to the building which — miraculously — was not damaged.

No, he hadn’t gotten to clearing that garage yet.

“If Barb and I came down there, would you have something for us to do?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said.

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Just a storm

We spent two and a half days at the farm, using drills and hex wrench heads, removing tin from wood and piling up the twisted pieces for recycling. We cut rafters and walls apart. Mark expertly moved used a Bobcat and a loader tractor to haul it out of the farmstead to be burned at a later date. Brother Merritt came too, as did Niece Kari Pates, who helped with kids. We got to eat fresh, road-ditch asparagus, with some of the main courses.

It’s hard to see how storm recovery fits into schedules that are already full.

Roof tin from lies in a pile after the the building that had been blown to pieces has been dismantled and carried away on a farm near Volga, South Dakota.
One task in storm cleanup from a May 12, 2022, derecho wind storm was separating “tin” from wood structure that will be burned at a future date. Photos taken May 20, 2022, Volga, South Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Kevin works full-time at the South Dakota Soybean plant and was trying to get the crops in the ground. Courtney is an emergency room nurse in Brookings, working nights. Phyllis is busy, caring for the three young kiddos, including a baby. Mark is busy, finishing the last of the lambing and trying to finish up the planting. He does some local trucking.

Me? I had to get back to the business of reporting.

As we drove back to Fargo, we commented about the work ahead, the tree work, the hauling, the rebuilding. But we thought about the farmers and others fleeing destruction from war in Ukraine, or trying to farm around man-made destruction that is deliberate and endless.

This derecho was bad, but at least the storm is over.

We are lucky, indeed.

Opinion by Mikkel Pates
Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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