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Sean Ryan / Forum News Service The destruction caused by a tornado Wednesday evening in Wessington Springs, South Dakota, is seen Thursday.

Damage toll rises in S.D. town after tornado

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WESSINGTON SPRINGS, S.D. — The damage toll rose Thursday as state and local authorities worked to assess the situation in Wessington Springs, a town of fewer than 950 people, in the aftermath of a tornado that tore through the southern half of the town shortly before 8 p.m. Wednesday.

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The tornado scattered debris everywhere and damaged at least 43 homes, at least 26 of which are uninhabitable, according to updated numbers released Thursday by Jerauld County State’s Attorney Dedrich Koch, who is acting as a spokesman for the response effort.

“The actual number is quite a bit higher. I’m sure of that,” Koch said in an interview Thursday.

Wessington Springs Mayor Melissa Mebius, whose own home was destroyed, said she also believes the toll, at least as far as property damage, will likely continue to rise as more damage is uncovered in the next few days.

“There are a lot more houses that no one is going to be able to live in for quite a while,” Mebius said. “It’s going to take our community pulling together, because there’s a lot of damage and we’re definitely going to have to come together.”

Koch said structural engineers arrived Thursday and started the process of assessing each of the houses affected by the storm to better determine which could be repaired and which will likely have to be torn down.

Twelve businesses were damaged and at least three were destroyed, including Springs Auto, the American Legion/Prairie Lounge and the Hideout Bar and Grill, Koch said.

The cleanup process is likely to last for weeks.

“Once we get in and start working, the big chunks will happen pretty fast,” Koch said. “But then we’re going to be cleaning up little stuff for quite a while.”

Despite the extent of the damage, only two people suffered any significant injuries, a husband and wife at a farm near Alpena that was leveled in the storm. Both were treated at a local hospital for injuries that were not life threatening, Koch said.

“We’ve been extremely fortunate with the extent of damages we’ve seen here that we didn’t have any loss of life,” he said. “In town here, all we had were some scrapes.”

According to the National Weather Service in Sioux Falls, the path of the tornado that hit Wessington Springs was about two miles long and 30 yards wide with wind speeds as high as 127 mph. The Weather Service rated the tornado as an EF-2, the fourth most severe rating on a scale from EF-0, the lowest rating, to EF-5, the highest rating.

On Thursday, emergency responders worked to restore basic services to the town, which has been without power since the storm. Electricity was restored in a few areas of the town Thursday afternoon, and Koch said work on the town’s infrastructure will continue over the next few days.

In other areas of the town more heavily damaged, Koch said power may take longer to restore.

“There are numerous downed lines,” he said. “It’s going to take some time to get that back online.”

Gov. Dennis Daugaard arrived in Wessington Springs on Wednesday night after the storm had passed, and returned Thursday to survey the damage and meet with those residents affected.

There was also already a sizable National Guard presence in the town Thursday.

Daugaard praised the response of residents, as well as all the police, firefighters and emergency responders, and credited the early response for the lack of significant injuries in the tornado.

“I want to say how proud I am to be the governor of a state with a community like we have in Wessington Springs,” he said.

Koch said many of the town’s residents were still in shock Thursday morning, but most are handling the disaster relatively well.

“We’re going to pull through this in good shape,” he said. “This is a tight community and they do pull together well.”

Koch said Thursday morning he was not aware of any fundraising efforts, but expects some to be established in the near future.

Daugaard said the state plans to combine all the damage from this storm system, which began moving through the state on Sunday, and request a presidential disaster declaration, which would make federal funding available for emergency relief and reconstruction.

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