Lessons Learned 20 Years After Deadly Tornado Hit Spencer South Dakota

SPENCER, S.D.- It’s been 20 years since one of the most destructive tornadoes in South Dakota touched down. Around 350 people lived in Spencer, six died and 150 were injured. KDLT’s Miranda Paige spoke with town officials about the lessons learned and potentially life-saving changes made because of this experience.

The first thing you’ll see driving into Spencer is a small reminder of the 1998 tornado. The town now stands tall, but everywhere you look there are reminders of the past, of a town almost destroyed with most homes turned to rubble. There’s the bell rebuilt after the destruction, the sign next to the post office with the names of the six people who died and even walking down the roads, although the grass has since grown, underneath it is still the remnants of what the tornado did.

” Nothing got hauled out it was buried right there at city limits,” said Brad Stiefvater, McCook County Emergency Services Manager.

The residents do not want to think back to what happened during this anniversary. For the five year anniversary those involved had a reunion and put their signatures and little notes on a sign left over from the cleanup period. Now they say they want to forget and move on.

However, the reminders sprinkled throughout town stay as a symbol of the bravery for a town that wouldn’t let a tornado wipe them off the map.

Stiefvater keeps that anniversary sign with him and says  he’ll remember that day for the rest of his career. Besides the sign, he has a photo in his office of the recovery stages of Spencer as a reminder of what he learned.

“The lessons learned at Spencer will go on for a long time you know in our planning,” said Stiefvater.

The National Weather Service gave a 15 minute warning for the tornado, but the sirens never sounded due to a power outage. Since then tornado sirens have been designed to work without electricity.

They’ve also improved their recovery plan.

Now we have an instant command system, emergency operation center, and staging areas where everyone who comes in is signed in to the recovery phase and then works on a plan,” said Stiefvater.

Emergency services hopes this won’t happen to anyone else, but if it does they will be ready.

The tornado was the second deadliest in South Dakota. The first was a 1944 tornado near Wilmot that killed eight people.


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