MAY 12 DERECHO: ‘LOOK AT IT!’ ‘I SEE IT! I SEE IT!’
Note: The Courier is making this available to all members and non-members alike. If you support this type of community journalism and are not currently a member, please consider becoming one. Benefits include emails delivered directly to you that includes content not available anywhere else.
A SPECIAL REPORT BY JEREMY WALTNER | EDITOR AND PUBLISHER
/dā rā CHō/
Noun: a line of intense, widespread and fast-moving windstorms and sometimes thunderstorms that moves across a great distance and is characterized by damaging winds.
Freeman Police Chief Scott Brewer turned 53 years old on Thursday, May 12, and Mother Nature delivered a birthday he will never forget.
Brewer was southwest of Freeman, at the top of a hill near the corner of 282nd St. and 435th Ave., late in the afternoon observing an incoming storm that would later be identified as a derecho when he called Mitchell dispatch to have the warning sirens sounded in town. Then, with the storm bearing down on him, he headed back to Freeman at high speeds, but even then, after turning onto Highway 81 and heading north toward town, his patrol pickup was suddenly enveloped by the powerful storm.
“At one point I was ahead of it, but it overtook me; I mean, it was movin’,” Brewer said. “You couldn’t see nothing. I couldn’t see in front of my windshield. But I kept driving. I needed to get back to make sure the alarm was being sounded.”
111.8 mph gust
Chad Hofer wasn’t around when it hit. He wasn’t even on the ground.
Instead, the lifelong Freeman community resident was on a plane returning from a work trip to Houston when he was diverted to Des Moines because of the significant weather disturbance in the greater Sioux Falls area — across all of eastern South Dakota, in fact.
But he’s got the evidence to show him exactly what he missed.
A security camera on the south side of his home north of Freeman, timestamped 4:40 p.m., shows the southern portion of his property, his family’s camper parked just off the driveway and the incoming derecho. Suddenly, the picture goes from daylight to dark.
Meawhile, Hofer’s wife, Rebecca, and their children driving for home on Highway 81 north of Freeman got caught in the storm.
“She tried to pull over,” said Chad, “but she said it felt like the car was going to blow away, so she kept moving.”
Upon returning home, Rebecca and the kids encountered the camper that had been parked by the driveway reduced to a pile of rubble in front of the garage, and they ended up in the basement of neighbors Jarrod and MeKayla Preheim.
Yes, Chad said, his wife was “very much” freaked out.
“Still is,” he said.
The other evidence that proves to Chad what he missed was his weather station that shows the top wind speed generated by the storm: 111.8 miles per hour.
Sheltering under a tractor
Nikki Mehlhaf was on the clock as the director of nursing at Oakview Terrace, the nursing home that is part of Freeman Regional Health Services, when she saw the storm was approaching. That’s when she called her daughter Mesa, who was at the family home located between Freeman and Menno, to deliver an important message: “Get Dad out of the field.”
“Yeah, he’s parking,” Mesa told her.
“I said, ‘There’s a wall cloud or something coming,” Nikki responded.
“Yeah,” Mesa replied. “I think it’s here.”
Nikki let her daughter go and got down to business in the nursing home, making sure the residents were all taking cover in their rooms, and then took a call from Mesa.
“She said, ‘It’s over here, but I don’t know where Dad is,” Mesa told her mom. “He was in the shed and I think he may be under a tractor.”
Turns out he was — safe and sound.
The rest of the farm didn’t fare as well. The Mehlhafs lost a horse barn used for calving, two silos, a grain bin full of corn, a couple of calves, some smaller outbuildings and a windbreak.
“What a mess,” Nikki said of her thoughts when she returned home. “Where do we start?”
Menno Mayor Darrell Mehlhaf was in his shop when the storm was on its way.
“I said, ‘Looks like it’s an ugly one coming; you don’t want to be out in this,’” he recalls, estimating that Menno lost power about 15 minutes before it hit. “And it was moving quick. It actually moved faster than radar could detect on my phone — much faster than any information could get to us by phone, anyhow.”
Mehlhaf hightailed it to his house and was undercover when the darkness overtook the daylight.
“The word that is commonly used between everybody who talks about it is the word ‘midnight.’ I’ve heard that used so many times — it was like midnight. I found myself walking in my house with my arms out trying to find a doorway. That’s how black it was.”
A farm place decimated
Stuart Curry, pastor of the Salem MB Church between Freeman and Bridgewater, was at the church doing some work when he got a notification on the phone that the storm was coming through. That’s when he called his wife, who was at their home 9 miles north of Freeman with several of their children.
“She’s like, ‘The storm is here, and I could hear the kids screaming in the background,” he said, noting that his 11-year-old son said “it sounded like a million eggs hitting the house at once.”
“There was nothing I could do,” Curry said. “I felt horrible.”
It wasn’t until he returned home after the storm had passed that he encountered the damage.
His yard was decimated.
“I felt devastated,” he said. “For the first 30 minutes I was in shock. I didn’t know what to do or where to start.”
Of the six grain bins on the property, two were in the trees on the opposite side of the house and another two were shredded, littering adjacent fields who-knows-how-far away. The other two were badly damaged — probably beyond repair.
The garage attached to the home was destroyed, probably from one of the grain bins flying into it, Curry says, as was a machine shed across the driveway.
Two other buildings on the property used for storage were destroyed, as was a well and control box near the house, “and my wife’s fruit trees are gone,” he said. “She’s bummed about that.”
And the house? Curry said on Monday he wasn’t sure of its status. While it remains the most in-tact infrastructure on the property, windows are broken, it’s filthy inside and there are cracks in the plaster and damaged beams in the basement.
“I wonder,” said Curry, who is currently living with his family at Fensel’s Motel and has seen support through an initial clean-up effort last Saturday and a meal train established by members of his congregation. “We’ll see how God is. He’s got a bigger plan than I’ve got.”
‘I see it! I see it!’
Will Ortman stood on the front porch of his East Freeman home facing the south recording video of the incoming storm. As anybody who has seen similar footage of the wall of weather coming in knows it happened fast, and Ortman’s video documents the panic it generated.
“Is this a tornado?” asks Will’s wife, Sherilyn, who can be heard in the video after coming in from the egg barn on the farm.
“I don’t know, but it’s not good,” Will says. “Look at it!”
“I see it! I see it!” Sherilyn says frantically.
“We better get to the basement,” says Will.
“Yeah,” Sherilyn replies, sounding out of breath.
Screams from Christian, the youngest of the three Ortman boys, can then be heard before the video ends.
Will said later those screams were generated by windows breaking in their house, and probably the sound of the wind destroying the front porch Will had recently built — the one he was standing on while filming the incoming storm.
The Freeman Academy/Marion track team was at practice after school as the storm approached and all quickly found shelter in the Pioneer Hall basement.
Everybody, except Jada Koerner.
As a distance runner, the FA junior was putting in more miles than the others and was running north near Casey’s — 10 blocks from the school — when she sensed the storm was getting close.
“I turned around and saw this brown cloud, so I picked up the pace,” she said. “I was a couple blocks away (from the campus) when I started feeling dust and tiny twigs hitting me.”
By the time she turned onto the block that leads to the school’s boulevard, “it was a wall of wind and I couldn’t see,” Koerner said. “A branch fell down and hit my arm and I couldn’t even make it to The Link. So I stopped at Music Hall to see if the doors were open and thankfully they were.”
Inside was Amy Hofer Vetch, who then texted a panicked Suzanne Koerner, Jada’s mom and track coach, who was with the others taking shelter and wondering where her youngest daughter was, and if she was OK.
“The best way to put it would be freaked out,” said Suzanne, who had been with her team on the soccer field as the storm quickly approached before they sought shelter. “That’s when it hit me she wasn’t there. I just had to trust that she was in town and would know what to do.”
Suzanne said she got the text from Hofer Vetch about 10 minutes later.
“Thank the Lord,” she said.
‘Whatever it was, it wasn’t pretty’
Stories like those shared by Scott Brewer, Chad Hofer, Nikki Mehlhaf, Darrell Mehlhaf, Stuart Curry, Will Ortman and the Koerners — and countless others not conveyed here but shared among friends and family and on social media posts — are but a microscopic sampling of the experience shared by those who encountered a storm unlike anything seen before.
“Everybody’s been touched by this,” said Curry. “It’s not like a tornado that touches down and takes a farm away and leaves everything else standing. It’s a whole path that has been touched.”
“The amount of damage in the community is just astounding,” said Stuart Preheim, a farmer and seed dealer living southeast of Freeman. “I keep hearing stories. It’s just unreal. It’s not everybody — I got by basically unscathed — but our neighbors around us are all fighting building and bin damage and trees on houses. And some farms are basically destroyed.”
Kyle Gossen, whose family lives on a farm south of Marion, had damage to vehicles and had a steel shed picked up out of the ground and set to the side, destroyed.
“To me, straight line winds take things and carry them,” he said. “Was it windy? Yes. Can I say it was a tornado? I don’t know; I can’t say that. But it picked that shed up and set it down over there. A straight-line wind would have took that sucker across the highway.
“Whatever it was, it wasn’t pretty. And it was quick.”
“There’s talk; was it just straight winds or was there some special things going on,” said Preheim. “And some people think there was an updraft — that there were funnels — but I have no idea.”
Brave new world
The May 12 storm had been forecast for a number of days leading up to it, with models showing a strong line of storms moving across eastern South Dakota. In that regard it wasn’t unexpected.
It’s its speed and size with which it moved that is so historic — and shocking.
“I’m over 65 and all the guys I’ve visited with who are 10 years older say they’ve never experienced anything like it,” Preheim said. “They talk about this being hurricane wind, and it’s true. It was unprecedented. It seems like a brave new world.”
As for its speed, Ortman estimates the storm was a mile or more away when he started his video, which ends 30 seconds later with his youngest son screaming and the family racing to the basement.
“It went faster than a car can drive,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like that; storms just don’t move that fast. You couldn’t get out of its way no matter how hard you tried. There was just no time to do anything.”
In addition to the speed of the storm, the other element that makes this weather event so historic was what Darrell Mehlhaf was talking about — the darkness it created.
“It was so black behind that cloud I wasn’t sure if I was looking at a tornado,” said Ortman. “All that dust was hiding whatever was coming behind it. It was so nondescript. I could see debris in the air but didn’t know what it was — tin? But I knew it wasn’t normal.”
“It was like midnight without a moon,” said Preheim. “Black as could be.”
While the rural areas were generally hit the hardest, towns like Freeman and Menno sustained significant damage, from uprooted trees to several of those trees falling onto homes.
“My tree, his house,” said Donovan Friesen, who was working alongside neighbor Marlyn Friesen on Cedar Street in Freeman to clean up the mess last Friday morning.
While the storm certainly impacted Freeman and Menno, those towns didn’t see the damage that other communities saw, like the nursing home in Salem or the community of Castlewood, where a tornado took out homes and severely damaged the school.
Gov. Kristi Noem said on Friday that emergency managers in 28 counties, including Hutchinson County, had reported damage to private property and public infrastructure.
And two deaths were reported as a direct result of the storm — a Wentworth woman south of Colton and a Sioux Falls woman. In both cases the fatalities were caused by flying debris.
“I can’t believe more people weren’t killed,” said Ortman.
“Several guys (who were caught in it) told me they thought this was their time,” said Preheim. “They thought maybe they weren’t going to survive it.”
Preheim said the loss of infrastructure is certainly significant, but when it comes to long-term impact, it’s the loss of topsoil that really hurts.
“That’s what all of that black was that made it like midnight,” he said. “That was the dirt in the air. Who knows how many tons-per-acre are gone. It’s devastating.”
Preheim said he has a neighbor who inspected one field where a cover crop had been planted and another where it had not, “and he said that field looked like the surface of the moon.”
Another farmer he visited with said he would be better off losing a crop and taking the insurance than experience what happened last Thursday.
“Once you lose the good parts in your dirt, that’s gone forever and you’re not getting reimbursed for that,” Preheim said. “That is a very good perspective.”
The long-term remedy, he said, may be more conservation tillage and no-till with a cover crop. “The fellas that are doing that now are really seeing the benefits,” he said.
The other major concern going forward is the loss of grain bins and what that will mean for on-farm storage.
“Losing machine sheds and all that is devastating, but your machines can sit in the sun,” Preheim said. “If we can grow a good crop, what are we going to do with it? You can’t physically take all that to the elevator while you harvest. It all happens too fast. How will all that play out? It’s anybody’s guess.”
Exasperating the concern is the shortage in the supply chain.
Preheim is hearing that replacement steel is so scarce that it could be more than a year before there is any sort of movement.
“Bins weren’t available to sell even before the storm,” he said. “Whatever they could manufacture was already sold. And I hear about multiple bins on farms, and so many of them.”
In the same way it’s impossible to know how many people were impacted by the May 12 derecho, there’s no way of knowing the long-term impact of it or what it will mean in the weeks, months and even years to come.
In the meantime, those affected will continue to pick up the pieces and move forward the best way they know how.
That includes Derrick Preheim, who lost both infrastructure and animals.
“As far as rebuilding, we’re just going to have to take inventory and evaluate,” said the livestock producer who lives north of Freeman and also has a calf ranch south of town. “Maybe we rebuild or try to figure out a better way of doing things.”
Preheim said he lost three silos — two of which fell onto a barn — two hoop barns, part of a shed roof, saw damage to a cattle building and finishing barn, and had to deal with the loss of about 25% of his hutches at the calf ranch and the impact that had several hundred calves.
“Mass chaos,” he said. “I don’t even know who all came out to help, but people came to help when time was of the essence. That’s very humbling.”
Remarkably, Preheim said, he never panicked and is largely at peace with the hand that has been dealt.
“It’s not because I am equipped to handle this; it’s by the grace of God,” he said. “It’s by the grace of God that we have been able to manage all of this in a reasonable fashion.”