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The May 30, 1998 Spencer, South Dakota Tornado

The town's water tower and other debris lie on the ground near trees stripped bare of their leaves by the high winds.
Argus Leader (June 3, 1998)
The town's water tower and other debris lie on the ground near trees stripped bare of their leaves by the high winds.

May 30, 1998 is a date that sticks in the mind of many South Dakotans as the town of Spencer was struck by a violent, multi-vortex tornado.

The hot, humid day started with forecasters calling for a moderate risk of severe weather for the area. A tornado watch was issued for the area at 3:50 p.m. The storm that would eventually produce the Spencer tornado developed near Wessington Springs around 6:35 p.m. The storm would split into two supercells, with the right-moving cell becoming the dominant system. A funnel cloud was observed by a storm spotter at 7:55 p.m. in northeast Davidson County, where the first of five tornados of the day would form.

Computer man

NWS Sioux Falls Radar image of the Spencer Tornado

The Spencer tornado was the third tornado of the day and began around 8:22 p.m., where it would churn up farmland and strip emerging cops bare northeast of Farmer. The tornado continued moving east/southeast, crossing the Hanson/McCook county line, entering Spencer around 8:40 p.m., and causing widespread destruction. After moving through Spencer, the tornado would sharply turn southeast and dissipate just north of Interstate 90.

Path of the Spencer, South Dakota tornado.
Path of the Spencer, South Dakota tornado.

The tornado caused six fatalities, injured more than one-third of the town’s 320 residents, and destroyed most of the town's 190 buildings, including the familiar landmarks, the grain elevator, the water tower, and church steeples. Damage was estimated at $18 million (34 million in 2024). Governor Bill Janklow described the damage as “a combat zone.” Debris from the tornado was found up to 50 miles away from the storm. The Argus Leader reported Jean Boen of Colton finding a blank check on her deck, and Nick Merkwan of Dell Rapids collected a box full of papers written to Spencer businesses.

The National Weather Service rated the Spencer tornado an F4 on the Fujita Tornado Intensity Scale with winds estimated between 207 and 260 miles per hour. The National Severe Storms Laboratory portable Doppler on Wheels (DOW), who was in the area, measured the tornado's winds at 200 m.p.h just before hitting the town.

The Spencer tornado was one of eight tornados on May 30th that produced F1 to F2 (73-157 m.p.h.) damage.

In the years that followed, the town's population of 320 at the time of the tornado diminished to 157 just two years later. As of the 2020 census, the population of Spencer has dropped to 136.

Other Media:
SDPB Biography of the Storm archive gallery
Photos of the tornado from NWS Sioux Falls

Brent is the Digital Content Curator at South Dakota Public Broadcasting. He came to SDPB after spending over 20 years broadcasting on radio stations in Aberdeen, Pierre, Milbank, Sisseton, and Watertown as Brent Nathaniel. An Aberdeen area native, Brent is based in Watertown with his wife Bri and their cat Allie.