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Powerful tornado kills 6 as it destroys SD town


Until Saturday, May 30, 1998, Spencer, S.D., was typical of many other

small Upper Midwest communities.

Life in the small city, centered around its four churches, the post office,

library, fire department, grain elevator and municipal offices. Many of the

more than 315 residents were retirees, some of whom lived in an assisted

living apartment complex on Main Street.

But at 8:45 p.m. Saturday, an unusually powerful, twin-funnel tornado

struck Spencer, killing six people and injuring nearly half of the city's

population. Less than a dozen homes escaped the wrath of the storm which

destroyed or severely damaged, all of the churches, post office, library,

fire department, grain elevator and municipal offices.

Residents had little warning of the tornado -- storms had knocked out the

power earlier in the evening making the tornado warning system inoperable.

"There's almost nothing left," said one long-time resident as he surveyed

the devastation, "I don't know how this little town will ever be able to


But even as residents emerged from their homes and more than 20 emergency

units began to transport the injured Saturday night, disaster relief

organizations began to appear to assist the survivors.

By 11 p.m. Saturday, the first Salvation Army truck had arrived in Spencer

to provide support for relief workers and area residents. Early Sunday

morning, Lutheran Disaster Response (LDR) through Lutheran Social Services

(LSS-SD) of South Dakota, was providing generators and volunteers assisting

in the initial cleanup.

The Lutherans have also deployed a counseling staff to assist in Spencer,

according to Gilbert B. Furst, associate director of LDR.

The Salvation Army sent volunteers from five different service units in

South Dakota, Iowa and Nebraska.

South Dakota Governor Bill Janklow declared the area a state disaster area

and activated the National Guard to help with immediate response efforts

and enforce a town curfew on Sunday night. The Governor has asked the

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to include the town in a Federal

disaster declaration.

"There's no water, there's no sewer there's no gas -- the community at this

point has no viability, it's totally destroyed and so we've got a serious

short-term problem in that we have to bring viability to the human beings

that are undergoing this immense suffering," Janklow told reporters Sunday.

The Spencer tornado, one of at least 24 tornadoes reported throughout the

Upper Midwest Saturday night by the National Weather Service, was the

deadliest tornado to occur in South Dakota in the more than 50-years, such

records have been kept in the state.

Storms in other areas May 30 were blamed for at least five other

deaths in Wisconsin and Michigan.

Posted June 1, 1998

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