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Rebuilding begins in devastated town

BY PJ HELLER | SPENCER, S.D. | August 14, 1998

SPENCER, S.D. (August 14, 1998) -- Nearly three months after a tornado flattened the tiny town of Spencer,

S.D., the long and agonizing process of rebuilding homes, infrastructure --

and lives -- is slowly getting under way.

"It's kind of a quiet little community," says Mayor Rocky Kirby. "Everybody

is doing their thing, trying to rebuild their lives."

The farming community, once home to about 320 residents, has seen its

population dwindle to about 120 people since May 30, when the worst tornado

in the state's history ripped through the town, leaving six dead, more than

a hundred injured and only about a dozen homes standing.

The question that has been lingering since the days immediately after the

twister destroyed nearly everything in the town, has been how many of the

disaster survivors will return to Spencer to rebuild their homes -- or even

if the town would continue to exist. Most of the disaster survivors are

living in nearby towns with friends, family and relatives.

"Some people have chosen not to return because there's nothing to go back

to," says Bob Blom, a disaster resource consultant in South Dakota for

Church World Service. "Others are saying, 'Spencer was our home, we're

going to go back and rebuild.'"

Kirby reports that 11 homes are currently under construction. Seven homes

are also being constructed for Spencer residents by inmates at the

Springfield State Prison under the Governor's Affordable Senior Housing

Program, which was begun in 1996. The 768-square-foot homes are available

for the elderly and handicapped and will sell for about $20,000 each. They

are trucked to a site and placed on a foundation.

The first such structure in Spencer was delivered recently to 72-year-old

Delphia Stuby, who received the key to the house from Gov. Bill Janklow.

Many Spencer residents like Stuby are elderly, some having lived in the

community most all of their lives.

"I think (moving in the first DOC home) is terribly significant," Janklow

told the Daily Republic newspaper in Mitchell. "Four months from now it'll

be winter and she needs a place to live. It's a chance for her to get her

roots back in the ground. There aren't any programs in America that can top

this program."

Janklow, who has said he wants to see the town rebuilt, may get his wish.

Plans are also in the works for a city hall and four-building complex that

will serve as a community center with a library, senior center, fire hall

and community building. Three of those buildings are expected to be

constructed by prisoner labor with the fourth built by a private

contractor. Also being discussed is a bank, a convenience store, a

restaurant and an apartment complex for senior citizens, according to Kirby

and others.

"It's progress, but it takes time," Kirby says.

Blom says the community is "in a kind of chicken and egg situation" as it

faces an uncertain future.

Some residents may be reluctant to return and rebuild homes in Spencer if

community services are not in place, he explains. At the same time, he

says, town leaders may be unwilling to invest heavily in the infrastructure

if people are not planning to move back.

Kirby says it's simply too early to tell how many residents will return to

the town. More than 250 homes and buildings were destroyed by the twister.

"Some of them are (returning) but I think we'll know more about it come

this time next fall," Kirby says. "I think we're kind of jumping the gun

right now to say how many will and how many won't.

"Some of them that have committed themselves say they're going to build

back haven't applied for building permits yet," he adds. "I think they're

just going to kind of see what happens in the spring, I suppose. I don't


Blom says the town has a unique opportunity to recreate itself from the

ground up.

They have the opportunity to build the city right," he says, adding that

building codes will likely be strengthened in the process. "I think there

are some neat opportunities."

Among them is the possibility of the town becoming a bedroom community of

Mitchell or Salem, with residents of Spencer commuting to work in those

nearby towns.

Relief efforts, meanwhile, are being coordinated through the Spencer Area

Recovery Interfaith Network (SARIN). Among the representatives to the

group, which is overseeing unmet needs, is the McCook County Ministerial

Association and the Interlakes Community Action Program. The latter group

is handling case studies and case management.

SARIN is also working closely to help coordinate the distribution of money

from the Governor's Fund, which was established to accept monetary

donations for disaster victims. That fund totals about $900,000, according

to Blom. SARIN has about $250,000 available, he reports.

SARIN got involved with the Governor's Fund when it became clear that the

state had no mechanism in place to handle unmet needs, Blom says.

"It takes some knowledge, some infrastructure, and some distribution

mechanisms in place to become a viable support process after the fact," he


Donations from around the nation, meantime, continue to come into Spencer.

A truckload of household items, including a complete living room set, a

washer and dryer and bicycles and books was recently received from Spencer,

Mass. Distribution was being handed by the Salvation Army.

Blom says that while such donations are appreciated, in many cases people

have no place to put the items.

He also notes that the community received so many donations of clothing --

"literally stacks and stacks and stacks...much more than the community

could really use" -- that it held a garage sale to get rid of much of it.

Proceeds from the sale went to SARIN.

"It's just an example of the generosity of people going overboard," Blom says.

Posted August 14, 1998

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