YANKTON (AP) – On that May morning in 2015, the Sunday school classes had gathered in the Zion Lutheran Church basement shortly after worship services.
Moments later, a loud noise pierced the air – sirens warning of a tornado descending upon the town. The Sunday school teachers and children took cover as the F-2 twister roared through the Douglas County community of Delmont with wind speeds of at least 130 miles per hour.
The Sunday school members drew on their faith as they huddled and prayed.
And then, silence.
Their prayers were answered: The tornado passed, and they found their way out of the rubble. They emerged to find the century-old brick church had lost its roof, stained glass windows and pipe organ.
The Rev. Brian Lemcke said his congregation and the rest of Delmont was spared in an important way.
“God blessed us with no injuries to anyone present (in the church basement),” he told the Yankton Daily Press & Dakotan. “Although both the parsonage and church buildings were virtually destroyed, along with many homes and other structures in town, we were blessed with no deaths and only minor injuries in Delmont.”
The tornado hit for just a few seconds, but its aftermath has remained for years. Last Sunday marked the fifth anniversary of the May 10, 2015 twister – with the date falling on a Sunday and Mother’s Day both then and now.
Lemcke has been pastor of the church since 2018 and has seen the tornado’s impact on his congregation.
“The lives of many people were changed that day, but God has brought us back together into a new and more useful facility,” he said, noting some items were used from the former church building.
TO THE RESCUE
The tornado’s anniversary brings intense memories not also only for residents but for first responders, volunteers and others who worked with cleanup and getting the town back on its feet.
Douglas County Emergency Manager Pat Harrington said the storm started between Wagner and Dante in Charles Mix County. The twister moved north-northeast into Douglas County before stopping four miles north of Delmont.
“Normally, you don’t have a tornado mid-morning,” he said. “A straight-line wind is one thing, but an actual tornado is fairly uncommon in the morning.”
The tornado traveled 17.3 miles and was 400 yards wide. The twister destroyed several farms, many miles of barbed wire fence and a considerable amount of debris ª some papers were found in Letcher, 60 miles to the north.
“For what that town (Delmont) went through, it was a miracle that no one was killed or that there weren’t more injuries,” Harrington said.
An estimated 20 buildings were damaged in Delmont, including the town’s fire hall. Nine people were treated for injuries, with seven released from the hospital shortly afterward.
The 911 dispatch in Lake Andes put out a call for all available assistance, with firefighters and ambulance crews arriving from within a 60-mile radius, Harrington said. At the time, he reported assistance from 14 fire departments and six EMS units accounting for 140 firefighters and more than 35 EMTs.
The first responders conducted a door-to-door search of the town’s residences and marked houses with an “X” to show the structure had been checked and no one was there.
“We didn’t know what we were going to find as far as (injuries) or even deaths,” Harrington said.
After the injured residents were transported for treatment, the first responders met at the baseball field to develop a plan. The town had lost its electricity, water and phone service. In addition, officials cited the danger of leaking propane tanks.
Delmont was evacuated that afternoon, with residents not allowed back into town until responders could guarantee their safety.
Then-Gov. Dennis Daugaard declared a state of emergency during his visit that afternoon. He met with then-Mayor Mae Gunnare, Fire Chief Elmer Goehring and Harrington for a briefing. The governor remained for a town hall meeting that evening.
Besides coordinating the first responders, Delmont officials faced hundreds – perhaps thousands – of non-residents descending on the community.
“Keeping everything organized and maintaining crowd control was a big deal. We had people coming to help with cleanup. We had people who came to see their mom and dad or other relatives, to see if everything was OK.,” Harrington said.
“But we also had certain people who just wanted to come to Delmont and see it, to see what was going on. We literally had people from Sioux Falls driving around and trying to get into Delmont (to see damage).”
Authorities also sought to keep away looters. The South Dakota Highway Patrol and the Douglas County sheriff’s office locked down the town, with only Delmont residents allowed inside the town’s limits.
The Tripp-Delmont school in Tripp was set up as an emergency shelter for displaced Delmont residents, Harrington said. However, to his knowledge, only one person used the shelter because everyone else stayed with family and friends.
Fire protection remained a concern, not only because of no water supply but also because the new fire hall – which had yet to be dedicated – was destroyed and collapsed on the firetrucks and equipment inside.
Goehring made arrangements with other departments to provide round-the-clock fire protection for about a week. In addition, fire departments, along with the South Dakota Department of Forestry, loaned or gifted trucks and equipment for Delmont’s usage.
In addition, the authorities sought a way of controlling the traffic and crowds which came to Delmont each day. Yankton County Emergency Manager provided and set up the Rapid Tag method of identification badges used to register and classify individuals as resident, volunteer, media or other role.
“You had to wear those badges, and it created an accountability piece,” Harrington said. “Anyone who didn’t have one of those badges was quickly escorted out of town.”
In the days following the tornado, Delmont received a visit from Sen. John Thune and then-Rep. Kristi Noem of the South Dakota congressional delegation. The third member, Sen. Mike Rounds, couldn’t attend personally but sent a staff member.
Daugaard returned in another capacity – as a private citizen picking up debris, without media coverage or other fanfare, Gunnare said at the time.
Gunnare and others worked with local, state and federal officials on receiving assistance, Harrington said. An emergency operations center was set up, and the National Guard and Red Cross played a major role, he added.
In addition, Delmont received state assistance in removing more than four tons of debris, which could have cost the city $330,000 and beyond the residents’ ability to pay, Gunnare said at the time. The city also received donations of trees, machinery and 1,200 pounds of grass seed, she said.
“Delmont had this little rubble site, which just wasn’t feasible,” Harrington said. “We had to work out something with the county to use some of their ground a couple of miles away.”
In a manner of paying it forward, Gunnare received advice from the Wessington Springs mayor and finance officer about their town’s recovery following its June 2014 tornado. After the Delmont tornado, Gunnare was invited to an international disaster conference in Minneapolis for a session on small communities’ response to disasters.
After the tornado, Delmont residents revived the New Year’s Eve Day parade and celebration, the firemen’s sausage supper, the kuchen festival and the Twin Rivers Old Iron Association’s harvest festival. Also, residents Elizabeth “Sam” Grosz and Barb Hoffman launched an effort to hang red wooden cardinals to brighten the town and symbolize new birth and hope.
In addition, Delmont city maintenance man Leo Holzbauer purchased the “Onion House,” whose trademark domes had sustained damage, in order to keep the building in the community.
During a recent interview, Harrington fought back emotions upon recalling memories and seeing photos from the damage and recovery process.
“In all honestly, I look at weather a whole lot differently after this storm. Things can happen that you don’t expect,” he said. “Sometimes, it seems longer than five years (since the tornado), and then sometimes it seems like it’s been just a couple of weeks. By far, it’s the largest event that I’ve worked with as emergency manager. I wasn’t there every day, but we were still dealing with it more than a year later. Recovery is a long process.”
Goehring, who was named the 2018 South Dakota Firefighter of the Year, said the tornado will continue to impact Delmont.
“We didn’t ask for this (tornado), and we didn’t have choices. We just rolled with it,” he said during a post-tornado interview. “This will stay with us for the rest of our lives.