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No serious injuries, but widespread damage from S.D. tornado

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WESSINGTON SPRINGS, S.D. -- John Berens was taking pictures with his iPad when his wife yelled at him to get to the basement.

He saw a white car across the street get lifted 6 feet in the air, and he knew it was time to take cover.

"It was just like they say about a freight train," he said, recalling the noise of the tornado. "The house is gone. I have a four-wheeler (ATV) and I don't know where that ended up."

Berens and his wife, Pat, were among many in Wessington Springs,  who suffered devastation from a tornado that sliced through the southeast part of the city at about 7:30 p.m. Wednesday. Early reports indicated there were no life-threatening injuries.

Wessington Springs is a town of about 1,000 people about 50 miles northwest of Mitchell in southeast South Dakota,  

Dedrich Koch, the Jerauld County state's attorney and public information officer for the storm, said 11 houses had extensive damage and will be uninhabitable. Three businesses are gone -- Springs Auto, the American Legion and Prairie Lounge, and the Hideout Bar and Grill. Minor damage was suffered at the nursing home, but Koch said there were no injuries there.

There were at least four nearby rural sites with tornado damage, including locations that lost outbuildings and suffered damage to homes. One location reportedly had damage where a woman was trapped under debris near Alpena, but Koch said the woman's injuries were not life-threatening.

The entire city of Wessington Springs lost electrical power Wednesday night. About a third of the town had some sort of direct impact from the tornado, according to the South Dakota National Guard.

Koch said there was a propane tank in town that lost its cap and was slowly leaking, but law enforcement was monitoring that as darkness fell on the city.

The Spring Creek Hutterite Colony, 18 miles southwest of Wessington Springs, lost a turkey barn and suffered major damage to another barn.

Koch said the priority Wednesday night was to secure the city's perimeter and make sure all people were accounted for. Temporary light systems were being placed throughout the city.

"We want to keep people from getting in and out," Koch said. "People are going to want to come back to their homes and we want to make sure there's nothing dangerous out there before we do that."

The entrance point for the tornado was the corner of Dakota Avenue and state Highway 34 on the south side of Wessington Springs. From there, the tornado moved northeast toward the Wessington Springs Elementary School. Minimal damage was reported there, according to Koch. Sirens sounded, and eyewitnesses said local police and firefighters drove up and down the streets to alert people ahead of the tornado's arrival.

Late Wednesday night, the fire hall was operating as the town's emergency command center. At 10 p.m., supplies started to roll in, including bottles of water. The South Dakota National Guard was organizing efforts to search the city and make sure areas were safe. Another emphasis was to clean the streets, which were littered with debris in the northeast part of the city. Koch said he hoped cleanup would start early Thursday.

At the Humm Dinger convenience store at the center of town, owner Jason Zacher was pumping gas. That was thanks to local electrician Greg Heil and his generator.

"We're just making sure we can get gas to those who need it," Zacher said.

Zacher gave a couple of Diet Cokes to Berens, who lost his house and two garages at 608 E. Main. The Berenses have lived in Wessington Springs for eight years.

"It puts Wessington Springs on the map," Berens said. "Not in a good way, I guess."

Heil echoed what other eyewitnesses in the town said.

"It could have been so much worse," he said. "It really could have."

Kim Christensen was driving his four-wheeler through town to survey the damage, because he didn't want to puncture a tire on his vehicle.

Wood, tin, nails and other debris -- the remains of homes and businesses no longer standing -- lay strewn throughout the streets. Despite the structural damage, Christensen said the town's people remained mostly physically unscathed.

"Everybody seems to be OK, as far as I know," he said.

Christensen, a city council member, said he was sitting on the other side of town, taking pictures when the twister hit.

"I didn't see it hit, but I could see the stuff in the rotation," Christensen said. "That was close enough for me. I'm not a storm chaser."

He estimated the storm hit close to the National Weather Service's prediction, which timed the tornado's arrival at 7:30 p.m.

"Whenever they said it was going to be here, believe me, it was here," Christensen said.

The tornado knocked down power lines, collapsed some homes and ripped the roofs off others.

"There's houses that are completely leveled," Christensen said. "A lot of damage. A lot of debri."

The destruction was devastating where it occurred, but some parts of town saw little to no damage.

"Where I was, 12 or 13 blocks away from it, I didn't even hardly feel the wind," he said. "It was pretty selective where it went through."

Wednesday's tornado was the second to hit Wessington Springs in the past 11 years. In 2003, a tornado skipped across town, leaving a destroyed baseball grandstand, a badly damaged church and several other wounded structures in its wake.

Elton Kaus lives in northwest Wessington Springs, away from the area devastated by Wednesday's tornado.

"We didn't even get a strong wind here," he said.

Instead, Kaus said the area near his house received only heavy rain and small-sized hail. Elsewhere, Kaus said the severity of the damage to houses and other buildings varied as roofs of some houses were partially blown off, while other houses were obliterated by the storm, with only the foundations remaining. Kaus estimated at least 20 buildings were destroyed.

In the area hit hardest, Kaus said a swarm of emergency responders worked Wednesday night to clear the roads of debris. He said the entire town was without power.

"Everything is just scattered everywhere," he said.

Gov. Dennis Daugaard, who declared an emergency earlier in the week because of flooding in southwest South Dakota, wasted no time visiting the scene.

Daugaard's communications director Tony Venhuizen said Daugaard was in Sioux Falls earlier in the evening, but made it to Wessington Springs by about 10:15 p.m. Wednesday and immediately began meeting with emergency officials.

"The state is doing everything it can to help Wessington Springs," Daugaard said in a statement issued through Venhuizen. "At this point it appears no one was injured, but there is still a lot of property damage, and they are going to need our help."

The Wessington Springs tornado was one of several tornado sightings Wednesday.

A twister was spotted just before 7 p.m. Wednesday, seven miles east of Gann Valley, according to a weather alert. It was expected to reach Wessington Springs by 7:30 p.m., and the storm also carried quarter-sized hail, the alert stated.

The National Weather Service issued tornado watches and warnings for several southeastern South Dakota counties late Wednesday evening, including a tornado warning for parts of Aurora, Brule and Jerauld counties, and a tornado watch for all of southeastern South Dakota. The tornado watch was issued around 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, and expected to last until 2 a.m. today.

A watch means severe weather is possible during the next few hours, while a warning means that severe weather has been observed, or is expected soon, according to NWS.

Social media reports also showed dramatic tornado sightings near Woonsocket on Wednesday evening, but didn't indicate the same level of destruction as the storm that shook Wessington Springs.

 
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