WESSINGTON SPRINGS, S.D. — Residents and business owners are recovering after a tornado ripped through the town late Wednesday.
Mayor Melissa Mebius said 23 homes are uninhabitable after the tornado hit Wessington Springs, a town of about 1,000 people 125 miles northwest of Sioux Falls, at about 8 p.m. At least 20 more suffered serious damage. Three businesses were also destroyed.
"There are a lot more houses that nobody is going to be able to live in for quite a while," she said.
One person was treated and released from a local hospital Wednesday night. There were no fatalities.
The National Weather Service issued a tornado warning at 7:25 p.m. Wednesday for the county. At 7:45 p.m., based on law enforcement reports, a tornado "went right through the heart," of Wessington, meteorologist Todd Heitkamp said.
"We are extremely blessed we had no serious injuries and we are extremely grateful for all the help we are receiving from the state, fire department, law enforcement (and other agencies)," Jerauld County State's Attorney Dedrich Koch said.
Gov. Dennis Daugaard arrived in town Wednesday night to tour the destruction. He said early Thursday that 172 National Guard units are or will be on scene shortly to assist with the relief efforts.
He credited a 20-minute warning time for saving residents' lives.
"There were people on the ball fields and people on the golf course, and because the emergency response was as early as it was, everyone was able to get to shelter in time," he said.
Warnings sounded four times before and during the storm, Koch said.
Mebius said her home was destroyed during the tornado. She was huddled up under the stairs with her husband and children as the tornado hit the house. The damage to the town is "devastating," she said.
"It's hard to come up with words, and I am not speechless very often. Right after it happened, in my little area, it's devastating in my two-block area. My neighbor's house is gone. All of my windows are shattered out. Camper, car gone. Swing set gone. Seeing the rest of the town, you can definitely tell right where the path went."
Mebius asked people who want to volunteer to stay away from the town for now. She said the volunteer effort will likely be able to assist with the cleanup effort Saturday.
"Right now the main issue is safety, cleaning roads and getting people into their houses," she said. Some residents have been allowed to pick up belongings from their homes, she said.
Laura Baker of Wessington Springs heard the warnings and was in her basement when the tornado rumbled through town.
"It kind of sounded like a freight train," Baker said.
After the storm passed, she watched the neighbor kids for a few hours while her neighbor joined volunteers offering help to those who needed it.
Baker was just leaving her home for the first time around 10:30 p.m., in search of generators in hopes of saving inventory at the flower shop she runs.
The storm knocked out electricity to the town, and power was left off through the night as a safeguard for emergency responders.
The same tornado that ravaged Wessington Springs then traveled east, narrowly missing the towns of Lane, Alpena and Woonsocket.
Woonsocket experienced a close call but ended up going untouched by the tornado.
Mayor Lindy Peterson said the tornado passed close enough that his neighbor was able to see it on the horizon from Highway 34.
When the tornado warning was issued, Woonsocket's emergency whistle went off to warn residents.
"We just got some big drops of rain and some dark clouds. We can be thankful for that," Peterson said.
Wednesday's tornado was the second in as many days to hit the area.
Residents near Humboldt spent Wednesday picking through wreckage after a tornado came through the night before.
Two homes and a few other structures were destroyed when the EF-2 tornado, with winds of 125 mph, hit the rural community west of Sioux Falls around 10:30 p.m. Tuesday. The tornado was on the ground for about 18 minutes and traveled just under 3.5 miles, according to the National Weather Service.