'No warning': Burke endures storm, brief tornado that causes injuries, destruction
BURKE -- In the span of minutes, Burke took a beating late Tuesday night.
An EF-1 tornado was on the ground for eight minutes, reaching wind speeds of 110 mph, while winds ranging from 80 to 100 mph damaged nearly every important building in the community and ruined houses and trees in the town of 600 in the south-central part of the state. Two people suffered minor injuries as a result of the storm.
And Jason Witt’s business was at the heart of it. The Burke Building Center was one of the most heavily-hit structures as a result of the storm. It was about a block away from where National Weather Service officials deemed the tornado touched down at 10:25 p.m. Tuesday night. Multiple buildings on the property were completely destroyed by the winds, leaving owners a massive cleanup job and questions about the future.
“We’re looking at a total loss. Everything we have is gone,” said Witt, a part-owner of the business.
Witt noted the storm claimed a shed, the business office, showroom and hardware store portion of the complex and took another estimated 80 feet off another building on the property. The roof from one building was blown onto an adjacent street.
“About the only thing we have left are some units of lumber out here that we’ll be able to get to eventually, but it’s pretty tough,” Witt said.
Down the street, the Burke School District’s complex was heavily damaged, two weeks prior to the scheduled start of school on Aug. 21.
"A lot of our middle school building, it does not look like it will be salvageable, and in our gym, it has water and roof damage," Burke Superintendent Erik Person said. "In our old high school building, it looks like we have a lot of water damage."
Person said the entire storm appeared to come through Burke in the span of about 10 minutes.
"It happened really quick. We were in the living room and we didn't even have time to get to the basement," Person said. "The power went off and you could feel the strong winds and within 10 minutes, it was over. ... After that, we went out for a drive and it was just like, 'Holy buckets.' It looked like a tornado."
The Burke Civic Center, which includes a gym and community offices, has heavy damage. Burke Mayor Tom Glover said it will likely not be salvageable. He said the cleanup process would continue in an effort to get life and business back to normal in the small town. Members of the community, and neighboring communities, stepped up their efforts to help out, he said.
“We’ve actually got more (equipment) than we thought we had the need for. It’s amazing how fast and how much people will come in and help out,” Glover said.
Glover said recovering from the damage will be a process. He said the Burke Civic Center, which is owned by the city, is a vital community hub, and losing it leaves a big hole in the middle of Main Street.
“The civic center -- we put it up a few years ago not knowing if it would be worth the investment. But that building gets used daily by groups for weddings and anything and everything you can think of,” Glover said. “There is literally someone in there almost every day.”
Kelsea Sutton, president of the Burke Business Promotional Corporation. said the community is dealing with the shock of the storm right now.
"We've got school starting soon. It's a little shocking to everyone in town," Sutton said. "But this is a place we still love, and I think our people will be strong."
Jumping into action
The brief tornado was deemed to have started near the Burke Fire Department building -- which is located one block east of Main Street -- and graded as an EF-1 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, with top wind speeds measured at 110 miles per hour. The tornado is estimated to have touched down at 10:25 p.m. near the city’s center, before lifting up eight minutes later south of town. The path measured 3.8 miles and was about 75 yards wide.
"We knew there was a threat for a thunderstorm," Sutton said. "We waited it out on the first floor of our house and there was no warning, no sirens. We didn't know how destructive it was going to be."
Gregory County was in the heart of severe thunderstorm warnings between 10 p.m. and midnight Tuesday, which were projected to bring winds as high as 70 mph and baseball-sized hail, with the tornado threat listed as "possible."
Once the storm hit, emergency crews went to work in town. Mike Karbo, of the Burke Fire Department, said crews assessed the situation and then worked as much as they could in the dark to ensure community residents were safe, he said.
“We started with a house-to-house check and then went through town twice (Tuesday) night and buttoned things up at about 2:30 to 2:45 a.m.,” Karbo said. “Then we mobilized again at 6:30 a.m. (Wednesday) morning and we’re now in the process of starting to clear things.”
Karbo said in addition to the Burke Fire Department, fire departments and emergency medical technicians from Winner, Colome, Dallas, Gregory, Bonesteel and Fairfax were on the scene to assist with the recovery. Multiple law enforcement agencies, including the South Dakota Highway Patrol and the Gregory County Sheriff’s Office, assisted as well.
While no deaths were reported as a result of the storm, some injuries did occur, Karbo said. Two community members were pulling into a garage when the storm hit when the roof collapsed on top of them. Karbo said they were taken to the local hospital, which can operate under generator power.
“We were able to get them out to the hospital and then we went and picked up the doctors and got them to the hospital,” Karbo said.
Burke Community Memorial Hospital CEO Mistie Sachtjen described her community as being lucky.
"It's bad," she said, describing the damage. "But we had two people with minor injuries and it's amazing that's all there was. There was no warning.”
Burke was mostly closed off by law enforcement Wednesday, allowing only those on official business involved with the cleanup, and a handful of others, into the community. Karbo said that was necessary to ensure the safety of the public and to help speed up the cleanup efforts.
“Power lines and accessibility,” Karbo said when asked why the access to Burke was restricted Wednesday. “You just can’t get around, and a lot of heavy equipment is coming through, so we want to have everything clear so we don’t have people getting run over.”
The Rosebud Electrical Cooperative, which serves Gregory and Tripp counties, said residents in the Burke and Lucas areas and from Gregory to Iona would likely be without power through Thursday.
Assessing the damage
Myron Johnson, chair of the Gregory County Commission, was in Burke Wednesday guiding members of the press through the streets. A native of the Burke area, he said he had grown up in the community. This was a completely new experience, he said.
“I grew up here and lived here all my life. I’ve never come close to seeing anything like this. I’m totally amazed only two people got hurt,” Johnson said.
Johnson estimated that as many as 300 trees may have been felled by the winds Tuesday night. But he also noted that members of the community were coming together to help each other, and people from outside the community were pitching in however they could. An online fundraiser page for Burke has been organized by former State Sen. Billie Sutton, raising more than $12,000 on the first day.
“The support of everybody is just unreal,” Johnson said.
Lawrence Oliver and his wife, Kathy, were taking in the damage at Hillcrest Motel just outside Burke. The owners said the motel has 18 units, but only two were rented out at the time of the storm. The winds blew the main sign for the motel off the roof of the main structure, but Kathy said the main damage seemed to be the trees on the property.
“The building appears to be pretty good, but probably the roof (may have been damaged),” Kathy Oliver said. “Otherwise it’s all the trees. Almost all of the trees on the property look like they’re gone.”
She said that the storm hit hard and had a peculiar sound.
“It sounded different, it really did. First of all we lost power, and then within a couple of minutes the storm hit, and it just sounded like things were breaking,” Kathy Oliver said.
Lawrence Oliver said they hoped to reopen for business, but they were waiting to get an official damage estimate from insurance adjusters before they made any decisions.
“We don’t know what other damage there is. We’re kind of waiting on insurance. We don’t want to do a whole lot until they get here,” Lawrence Oliver said.
Glover lamented the damage to other buildings in town, including the Burke Building Center. Small towns cherish their businesses and services, and losing any of them can be a setback to community growth.
“The (Burke Building Center) is probably the worst in town. I’m hoping they decide to rebuild. That’s up to them, but we would hate to lose a business like that,” Glover said.
Like many in town, Witt said he was waiting to hear from insurance adjusters and weighing his options when it comes to cleanup and rebuilding.
“It’s really hard to tell. We have another store in Gregory that we’re going to be working out of, hopefully taking care of the town and getting materials down here,” Witt said.
Witt said the business employs about five people including seasonal help, and once things get a little more settled, they would proceed with picking up the pieces.
“Our adjuster isn’t here until tomorrow. There’s no inventory to remove. It’s not salvageable and you can’t sell it. But once we get the streets cleared, we’ll start picking up,” Witt said.
Still, with cleanup taking place all around him, Glover said he can see the good of the situation in the people helping each other recover from the worst storm the community has seen in decades.
“That’s vintage for this town. It’s always been that way. If there’s a need, there’s always someone in the community that steps up and takes care of it. That’s what we like about this part of the world,” Glover said.
A little farther up the road off U.S. Highway 18, the Burke Golf Course was dealing with damage to its many trees and part of the roof of the clubhouse that was peeled back in the storm.
Ron Determan, head groundskeeper for the golf course, agreed with others that the storm that moved through Tuesday night was unlike anything he had seen in his time living in Burke.
“We’ve had nothing like this. Absolutely nothing like this,” Determan said. “It just cut (trees) right off. It just laid them over.”
Removing the damaged trees from the course will take time, especially since most of the available heavy trucks and equipment were already busy clearing the town of branches and other debris, he said.
Determan said it would probably take at least two weeks just to clear the trees and small branches from the course.
“We don’t have the equipment to move the big stuff, and they definitely have to take care of the town first,” Determan said.
A resident of Burke, he also suffered personal property damage from the winds.
“I lost my pickup last night. It got hit by a tree. Other than that, I had a broken window in the trailer, but that’s about it,” Determan said. “It could have been worse.”