National Guard joins response to 'unprecedented' storms; governor declares emergency
Governor Kristi Noem has declared a state of emergency following strong storms and at least one tornado that raged through eastern South Dakota on Thursday.
In a morning press conference, Noem said 28 counties had submitted summary damage reports so far. She says the National Guard is en route to multiple communities, including her hometown of Castlewood, which sustained significant damage from a tornado. She calls the storm "unprecedented."
"We have not had in South Dakota a time when every single agency is on the ground responding like we do in this situation," Noem told reporters. "The Department of Ag is very involved right now responding to needs we have in rural communities, Department of Education is helping many of these schools and kids that don't necessarily know if they'll be able to go back to school right away because of the damage to their buildings."
Noem says the Department of Corrections work-release program will allow inmates to volunteer in Salem, which also saw significant damage. The Department of Health has worked with Salem's nursing home residents and their families to find housing in light of the facility's damage. The Department of Public Safety is coordinating state responses.
"But the local communities are the lead, make no mistake about that," says Noem. "It has to be the local community or the tribe that says, 'Yes, we need help and we want these resources,' and then we will respond." The governor says citizens should report damages to their local sheriff and emergency response directors first, and consult with insurance providers on reimbursements for damages.
Kristi Turman is the director of the Division of Emergency Services within the Department of Public Safety. She says the department will work with counties and cities to evaluate the cost of damages and the possibility of FEMA assistance.
Two deaths reported
Both Governor Noem and Mayor Paul TenHaken referenced a death in the Sioux Falls area related to the storm, but would not offer further details. Minnehaha County Sheriff Mike Milstead disclosed a second death: 61-year-old Wendy Lape of Wentworth. Sheriff Milstead explained Lape was driving home with her husband when they were caught in the storm's near-zero visibility. Lape sustained head injuries when debris broke through the car window, and she died of those injuries Friday morning.
If you didn't know this storm was coming, I ask you to take this time now to figure out why.Todd Heitkamp, Meteorologist in Charge, National Weather Service in Sioux Falls
Officials urge multiple avenues to receive weather alerts
Todd Heitkamp with the National Weather Service says the initial storm system that prompted warnings in the Sioux Falls area and beyond brought winds ranging from 70 to 105 mph. Heitkamp says high winds at that level cause damage comparable to an EF0 or EF1 tornado, but that damage is much more widespread. Later, the Weather Service classified the storm system as a derecho, a widespread and fast-moving straight-line windstorm with a damage swath of more than 400 miles.
Mayor TenHaken says he often receives questions after similar strong storms about the city's tornado siren policy. "They are tornado sirens. We sound the sirens when there's a tornado," he said. "There are multiple ways to keep informed about the weather. There's weather radios, there's alerts on your cell phones, there's seeing the sky that looks like beef stew that tells you you shouldn't be out."
The National Weather Service in Sioux Falls issued the day's first severe thunderstorm warning including the city at 4:40 pm. Heitkamp says that gave community members 22 minutes of lead-time before the storm hit. "What people did with that lead time varied," he said. "From my standpoint: the National Weather Service, the media, local officials did everything they could to inform the general public. If you didn't know that the storm was coming, I ask you to take this time now to figure out why."
A wireless emergency alert system activated area cell phones with the warning. "If you didn't know, that's a recent change: anytime a severe thunderstorm warning is issued by the National Weather Service that calls for 80 mile-per-hour winds, your phones will be activated," says Heitkamp. He says anyone in the area whose phone was not activated should contact their cell service provider to check their settings.
Downed powerlines present safety concerns
The high winds caused power outages across the region. As of Friday morning, Xcel Energy reported 10,500 customers without power. East River Electric reported 9,100 customers without power at noon.
Minnehaha County Sheriff Mike Milstead says downed powerlines present a safety issue in the cleanup process.
"The greatest chance of us having another fatality from this storm will be somebody getting electrocuted today or tomorrow or the next day during the cleanup."
Xcel Energy Principal Manager Steve Kolbeck says downed powerlines that have been flagged have already been reported to the company. He says customers should still report any outages, and not assume the company is already aware. He adds this will likely be a "multi-day event" to restore power to all customers.
As for other debris and tree damage, the City of Sioux Falls has launched a website with details on debris clean-up efforts and drop-off locations.