SIOUX FALLS | Straight-line winds that spread across southeastern South Dakota Thursday claimed at least two lives, according to various state and local officials.
Authorities announced during a Friday morning news conference that a Wentworth woman was killed in the storm Thursday night south of Colton when struck by storm debris.
Minnehaha County Sheriff Mike Milstead said the victim, 61-year-old Wendy Lape, was traveling home with her husband when the incident occurred at 5:11 p.m. as straight-line winds arrived in the area. A chunk of wood went through the windshield and fatally injured Lape, Milstead said.
News of Lape's death came after the Sioux Falls Emergency Management Department reported a Sioux Falls resident also died in the storm Thursday night. Details have not yet been released on that death.
Gov. Kristi Noem and Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken were also present to provide updates on storm damage and the response in Sioux Falls and southeastern South Dakota during a 10 a.m. briefing.
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The South Dakota governor issued an emergency declaration due to the widespread damage caused by the storms and even called for Interstate 90 to be shut down for a few hours on Thursday.
"We had an unprecedented weather event in South Dakota yesterday. We have had many storms before, but the amount of communities that have been affected, we just haven't seen before," Noem said.
As of Friday morning, 28 counties in South Dakota had reported damages caused by the storms. Noem also said the deaths they're aware of involved people in vehicles.
Twenty South Dakota National Guardsmen were going to be deployed to Castlewood to help with recovery efforts after a tornado hit the town along with 50 others to Madison and nearby towns, Noem said.
Some guardsmen were also being sent to Salem where a nursing home was damaged and had its residents displaced, Noem said.
'It could have been a lot worse'
Todd Heitkamp, head meteorologist of the NWS in Sioux Falls, said Thursday's weather events were mostly caused by straight-line winds although there was a confirmed tornado in Castlewood.
"It could have been a lot worse, thankfully it wasn't," Heitkamp said.
The storm that hit Sioux Falls included 70-105 mph winds.
"This is not a tornado, you're not going to have a tornado this widespread," Heitkamp said.
The meteorologist from the NWS in Sioux Falls along with Noem urged people to be more weather aware and said through social media and local media along with phone alerts there was no reason somebody shouldn't have known the storm was coming.
"If you didn't know the storm was coming, take time now to figure out why," Heitkamp said.
The wind speeds experienced in many parts of southeastern Sioux Falls were equivalent to those of an EF-0 or EF-1 tornado, according to Heitkamp.
Multi-day event for power restoration
Steve Kolbeck, principal manager at Xcel Energy, announced more than 10,500 customers remain without power as of Friday morning.
Overall, more than 20,000 customers in southeastern South Dakota are without power.
Kolbeck urged customers not only of Xcel but of other energy providers to make sure to report any power outages and allow time to restore the electricity since it's shaping up to be a multi-day event.
He said Sioux Falls had crews working through the night. The water reclamation plant, schools and hospitals are all back online although more than 35,000 customers in the service area were affected in some way.
"Don't assume we know you don't have power," Kolbeck said.
Residents describe storm as ‘scary’
Bobbi Andera was home Thursday night at her home near McKennan Park and looked out her window to see trees coming down one by one in her next door neighbor’s yard. She stayed in the basement with her dogs during the storm. She had no power Thursday night or Friday morning.
When she woke up on Friday morning, her first instinct was to get out and help her neighbors, who she said are an older couple who use oxygen tanks to breathe. She and her friend Patrick Perino worked to move branches and used a chainsaw to cut trees apart to move them out of the way.
It’s my duty to take care of my neighborhood and my community,” Andera, a former city council candidate, said. “(The storm was) scary as all get out.”
Perino said his neighbors helped him out and cleaned around his yard for him during the 2019 tornadoes, so he wanted to “pay it forward” by helping his neighbors during this year’s storms.
Near Susan B. Anthony Elementary School, TJ Olson’s family home was impacted when his neighbor’s tree uprooted and fell directly on the front of the house.
Olson said he had just arrived home Thursday night when the storm started. He was taking care of his daughters, ages 3 and 5, when the tree fell on the house.
“It was a big crash, boom,” he said. “My dogs started barking, and the girls started screaming.”
One of the tree’s branches busted through his front window. The family recently renovated the siding on their home. Olson was calling tree surgeons, insurance representatives and the gas company for most of Thursday night.
Olson’s neighbors walked by the house and checked in on Olson multiple times Thursday night to see how he and his family were doing and if they needed anything, he said. Fortunately, no one was hurt.
Two vehicles hit by cars near Augustana
At Augustana University, two vehicles were trapped under fallen powerlines along 33rd Street on Thursday night, associate vice president Rick Tupper said.
Tupper said one of the drivers of the two cars, a woman, made the smart move to stay in her car while the lines covered her car. The other vehicle, a truck, was able to get away from the scene quicker and safer than the woman’s car was, Tupper said.
“It had to be scary as hell,” he said of the woman who was trapped. “I’m guessing she was petrified.”
Tupper was on campus with other administrators watching weather coverage when they saw on the radar that the storm was moving through Yankton. At that point, university officials made the call to send out a campus alert, about 40 minutes before the storm hit Sioux Falls, telling students and staff to prepare to seek shelter.
Everyone was able to get inside and sheltered in time, thanks to the alert, Tupper said. Every building on campus has a designated area for people to find shelter.
As of Friday morning, the only damage to campus was the fallen powerline on 33rd Street, some tree damage across campus and some shattered windows. There was no structural damage to campus, Tupper said. Power is out on the south side of 33rd Street and on the west side of campus, but the main area of campus had power as of Friday morning, he said.
On Friday, Augustana's campus is balancing severe weather cleanup with campus visits from prospective students as well as the start of finals week. Tupper guesses it will be a few days before the campus is back to normal.
Students walking across campus Friday morning were observing the damage on their way between classes, with some taking photos of campus landmarks that had seen the worst of the storm.
Both Ngawang Chime and Avery Laursen were taking photos of a fallen pine tree that they said was the highlight of their campus walks.
Chime, a nursing major from New York, said it was her first time seeing such severe weather. When the storm hit, she and her friends were scared and though to themselves, “Oh shoot, it’s getting crazy. It’s the end of the world.”
“Life changes in a snap,” Chime added. “Nothing is guaranteed.”
Laursen, a junior biology major with an emphasis in ecology, said she was off-campus at the time of the storm. She said her friends saved a nest of baby wood ducks that was in the tree and brought it to the Outdoor Campus. Her morning walk has changed with the loss of several old trees on campus, she said.
“It’s really sad to see a tree this big come down on campus,” she said. “But, I was more stressed about the power lines.”
Helpline website for resources available in Sioux Falls
Tenhaken urged Sioux Falls residents to report any damage they've gotten due to the storms by calling the 211 helpline. A landing page for resources for city residents was also established and is available on the City of Sioux Falls website.
The 211 helpline is accessible to non-English speakers, according to Tenhaken, but the city's website is only available in English. The Sioux Falls mayor said it will eventually be translated into other languages.