The June 23, 2003 tornado, part of “Tornado Tuesday” in South Dakota that day, did considerable damage in Wessington Springs. June 23, 2013 marks the tenth anniversary of the storm.
Residents in Wessington Springs scurried for cover Tuesday evening, June 24, 2003 as storms that blasted across South Dakota threatened overhead. And when the sun came up the next morning, many of them had terrifying tales to tell about the first tornado ever to hit the community. Much of the destruction followed a southwest to northeast strip of Wessington Springs it started in the city park. The twister was accompanied by nearly 2 1/2 inches of rain that pummeled most of the town.
There were no reported injuries from the storm but damage to homes, other buildings, and the historic grandstand in the city park was considerable.
The twister dropped from the sky at around 9:30 PM in the city park, a matter of feet from the spot where a half dozen campers were parked. It ripped through roof from the campground bathroom shower house, leveled the nearby picture shelter, grabbed a handful of heavy picnic tables and headed toward the baseball field. The rugged old Stone field house, one of eight Wessington Springs buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, was spared, but the huge cottonwood trees right in front in right field were stripped by the twister’s winds. As the storm dropped picnic tables on the baseball field, it ripped into the historic grandstand. Seconds later the structure that had been the backdrop to thousands of baseball games was reduced to a pile of green boards. Once the storm had destroyed the baseball dugouts, grandstand and fences at the ballpark it set its sights on the residential area.
A camper sitting in the driveway of a house owned by Mr. and Mrs. Philip Heisel was overturned across the street from the ballpark. Next door, the home of Jim and Bernice Bird received roof adage.
The third house, occupied by Ken Cudmore and Mike Gohring, was hit much harder.
Cudmore raced home in the nick of time, but had to weather the storm in the garage while sitting in his pick up. “The storm raised the roof on the garage while I was sitting in the pick up,” Cudmore said. “And it was really loud!” Before it was over the twister had hurled a large tree limb through the roof of the house, protruding into one of the bedrooms.
The funnel hit the back of the Hummer Dinger convenience store, causing damage there and apparently bounced over the main street area businesses like Baker’s Repair, Winter Service, Farm Bureau Insurance and the restored 1905 Opera House.
Winds caused structural damage to the Wessington Springs high school, ripped out trees in the school’s yard and tore out electrical lines on the north side of the building. Damage to residential buildings resumed across the street to the south when the storm encountered the Home of Eldon and Joyce Beckman. Damage to the house, a steel building and a garage was reported there. A car owned by the Beckman’s daughter was housed in the garage and was declared a total loss.
Beckmans neighbor Kay Younie had an exciting evening when the twister passed her house. “I don’t even remember going down the steps to the basement,” she told coworkers the next day. The electrical service to the house was ripped out, debris was scattered inside through broken windows and she was unable to get her car out of the garage the next day.
The storm upset and destroyed a van parked in the backyard next door.
More tree and home damage was reported to neighborhood buildings as the storm progressed in a northeasterly direction. It roared past Mary Lou Cameron’s house, ripping off siding and causing the home to creak and shake as she scrambled for the basement.
Near the home of Marv and Joan and Reissued, the storm took on a little more attitude. “The winds started getting worse and we decided to head for the basement,” he said. “We heard some glass break a window in the house and when we came back out the garage was gone! The building had been filled with collectible vehicles and tools. “The wind even sucked the keys out of my Harley motorcycle,” he said.
Building inspectors had to be called to assess the damage at St. Joseph Catholic Church. It was reported that at least one wall of the brick structure had moved approximately an inch, causing cracking on the interior walls. Church members spent the rest of the week cleaning the interior.
More damage was done to the Catholic Church Rectory where windows were broken, roofing was damaged and the home’s electrical service disrupted.
The twister did more damage when it bounced into the home of Ron and Jane Mook, took a parting shot at Larry’s Repair in the extreme North East corner of town, and left without seriously injuring any of the town’s 1000+ residents.
No warning sirens during the outbreak
A storm that floated past Wessington Springs brewery that evening apparently it was carrying a twister that hit the East River electrical substation near Woonsocket, knocking out all of the electrical service to the Wessington Springs area. The lack of electricity made it impossible for city officials to sound the sirens that normally warn residents of impending severe weather. Without warning sirens and electricity to power televisions and radios, most people were left to assume the worst was coming and plan ahead for it.