Photos, Stories: Delmont Recovers

May 12, 2015

The mayor of Delmont says she doesn’t know what the future holds for the small town. A tornado ripped through the southeastern South Dakota community Sunday, and community members are just starting to tackle cleanup. Below are a series of reports from the southeast South Dakota town of about 200 residents.

Past the quiet area where law enforcement officials guard the entrance to town, Delmont is a noisy place. National Guard troops use bobcats and dump trucks to clear branches and brush off the streets.

Entire yards are covered in layers of splintered wood, sheet metal, branches and broken possessions. Sunday’s tornado violently destroyed 49 homes and buildings in Delmont. Mayor Mae Gunnare estimates about 90 people have houses they can’t repair. That’s nearly half of all people who live in the community, and it raises questions.

"I’ve had people come up to me; they’re saying, ‘You know, insurance says we have to rebuild here. We have to not.’ They’re taking debris. It’s going to take time," Gunnare says. "People need time to be slow on their process of what they’re going to do. Sleep on it, you know. It doesn’t have to be decided today. People are looking, do we rebuild in Delmont? That’s going to be a major question."

Delmont, SD / May 12, 2015
Credit Kealey Bultena / SDPB

Windows are shattered. Siding peels off the sides of houses. Roofs have vanished. Sandy Frentz is with the incident management assistance team helping local officials in Delmont. She says people sorting through the rubble to salvage personal items need to consider the danger of their surroundings.

"You know, they have very much kept a focus on safety throughout this entire process," Frentz says. "You know, safety for the residents, safety for the responders, people that are working around here."

Frentz says officials are holding off on letting volunteers into town because they want to make sure the environment is safe.

National Guard troops are clearing piles of downed branches in Delmont…and residents pick through the remants of their homes. Sunday’s EF-2 tornado in the southeastern part of the state took out 49 of Delmont’s homes and buildings, and one of the town’s few mainstays is beyond repair. 

It appears the only thing normal in Delmont, South Dakota is the fact that the birds continue to sing. They don’t seem to realize that they’re pecking on the ground where fences are torn apart. They’re sitting on trees that are snapped into a bunch of pieces. They just keep singing, but around them is chaos.

Heavy machines hoist huge piles of tangled branches into dump trucks on the west side of Delmont. Front yards are masked by the mess of debris a tornado wrenched from homes and nearby buildings. Just up the street, an iconic sanctuary looms. Sandy Frentz says the tornado’s timing spared a congregation.

Delmont, SD / May 12, 2015
Credit Kealey Bultena

"Oh my gosh, Sunday morning, the kids were in Sunday school. Everything happened really so fortunately, because the church service had been over," Frentz says. "Kids were in Sunday school, so they were taken to the basement. When the storm ended, they walked them all right out the back door."

Now a pile of broken bricks slumps in front of the building. A gaping hole in the roof reveals the interior of the church, and contorted pipes from the organ jut into a cloudy blue sky. Mayor Mae Gunnare says the Zion Lutheran Church was a cornerstone of this town of 200.

"The church was a landmark in the community for 100 years, so actually it was my home church. It isn’t now, but it was," Gunnare says. "I was baptized, confirmed, and married there, so lots of sentimental things. It’s got lots of ties to the community, and it’s going to be a tough loss."

Gunnare says Sunday’s tornado – the one that smashed out windows, toppled cars, uprooted trees, and launched debris into the air – left the church’s altar untouched. She says parishioners are dismantling the church…and salvaging that piece. The mayor says she doesn’t know whether the congregation plans to rebuild.

People trying to pick up what the tornado left behind have an arduous task. But people who survived Sunday’s storm are focusing on the good that remains. One man left the hospital to help the community recover.

Michael Williams takes care of two family homes in Delmont. He was ready to return to his own house in Sioux Falls Sunday morning when he heard the weather sirens blare as rain and hail fell. Williams went to the basement.

"There was a bang and glass was breaking. The house was shaking I can’t even describe how violently. The next thing I know is I am thrown onto the ground, and the wind and the dust – I couldn’t even see two feet in my basement because of the swirling wind and debris," Willaims says. "I was knocked down, shoved into a wall, and what happened was there were two pallets in this little room where I was at. They landed on top of me. Th en these big block fell on top of the pallets, ricocheted off, and it’s crazy. I had all this debris laying on top of me, and I was knocked out."

Delmont, SD / May 12, 2015
Credit Kealey Bultena / SDPB

Two days after that ordeal, Williams is dragging snapped branches and split wood across his yard. Williams was released from the hospital after treatment. He has a gash on his arm covered. The man in a blue baseball cap talks at length about a house that’s been in his family for decades.

"About seven years ago, we named it Delmontico University, and we’re the home of the Steelheads. We have friends come here; it’s kind of a meeting ground for family. We make – my family has an old-fashioned recipe for sausage. And coming back to the Delmontico University, everybody knew when I said, ‘We’re going to the U,’ they knew that I was coming to Delmont," Williams says.

Williams says the "university" is about wisdom, knowledge and fun. He says he’s checking in with people in town to make sure they remember that mission despite the storm.

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Dakota Midday host Karl Gehrke spoke with Kealey Bultena live from Delmont on Dakota Midday. Listen to their conversation online at this link.