Twister!

Michael Garlock reports on the devastation caused by tornadoes that tore through a South Dakota town.


Even before a tornado leveled the small town of Spencer, SD, on May 30, 1998, the mechanisms necessary to jump start search and rescue operations had been initiated on three fronts. Photo by Dave Sietsema/The Daily Republic The path of the twister is plain when viewed from the...


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Even before a tornado leveled the small town of Spencer, SD, on May 30, 1998, the mechanisms necessary to jump start search and rescue operations had been initiated on three fronts.

11_98_twister1.jpg
Photo by Dave Sietsema/The Daily Republic
The path of the twister is plain when viewed from the sky. The series of storms caused damage throughout the area, from just east of Mitchell to east of Spencer. Note the toppled grain elevator in the foreground.
  • A civilian placed a 911 call to Sioux Falls, a city 45 miles to the east, warning that small towns in the area were in danger.
  • The state's governor, realizing that Spencer was in the path of a tornado - thanks to a private line to the National Weather Service (NWS) - got into his four-wheel-drive vehicle and began driving toward the town.
  • Crews from the neighboring Salem Fire Department had been dispatched to go "spotting" for tornadoes and were in town when the twister struck.

The NWS issued a tornado warning at 8:32 P.M. The killer tornado, rated at F4 on the Fujita scale, leveled Spencer 12 minutes later.

Mile-Square Town

Spencer, a town of 320 people, measures roughly a mile square and is laid out in a grid pattern. North to south the grid varies from six to nine blocks, while six blocks demarcate the east-to-west boundaries. The blocks are 300 feet long and there are five to seven 50-foot lots per block, making for an average of 24 dwellings per block.

Commercial and business structures were built either entirely of wood or a combination of wood with masonry fronts, with the exception of a steel water tower and a grain elevator made of reinforced concrete, steel and wood. The streets within the grid are two-lane hardtops. There are no traffic lights.

The nearest large city, Sioux Falls, population 116,000, is 45 miles to the east. Travelers from the east or west reach Spencer by taking Interstate 90 or State Road 38. North-south access is limited to an unnamed, unnumbered two-lane country road.

According to a master list compiled by members of the South Dakota National Guard, there were 188 buildings in Spencer before the twister hit. Twenty-three were businesses, including the water tower and grain elevator.

Six people were killed by the tornado; a seventh fatality, a myocardial infarction attributed to stress, occurred 24 hours later. One hundred-fifty people were injured. (The last time a tornado caused a fatality in South Dakota was in Lincoln County on July 14, 1970.)

11_98_twister2.jpg
Photo by Korrie Wenzel/The Daily Republic
South Dakota Governor Bill Janklow, left, and McCook County Sheriff Gene Taylor inform the media of the condition of victims – and the town itself – during a Sunday morning press conference on Highway 38.

Although the surrounding land is given primarily over to the farming of corn, wheat and soybeans, some cattle were killed. They were immediately taken by their owners to a rendering plant in Sioux Falls, thus obviating the possibility of typhus, a danger whenever animal carcasses are present.

Followed Unusual Path

The tornado, accompanied by heavy rains and thunder and traveling at 35 mph in an untypical northwest-to-southeasterly direction, slammed Spencer at 8:44 P.M. About 35 seconds later, the town ceased to exist for all practical purposes, having been razed by the twister whose top winds were clocked at 217 mph. It is being called the second-worst natural disaster in the history of South Dakota. (The state's worst disaster was the June 1972 flood in Rapid City that left 236 people dead and 2,900 injured.)

First Assistant Chief Gary Sher-man of the Salem Fire Department, who was on the scene before the tornado struck, recalled, "The sheriff had us paged out between 7 and 7:30 P.M. to go spotting. The sheriff and his deputies were also spotting in their vehicles. Spotting is SOP (standard operating procedure) in this part of the country. We were on Highway 38 on the north side of town. At 7:45 P.M., we got to Spencer. We saw the tornado to the northeast. Twelve of our people responded. We had a four-by-four, a grass rig and our Suburban.

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