Worn-Down Burke County Residents Pause from Tornado Cleanup

It was the fifth day since the severe storm and EF-1 tornado tore through the South Dakota town. Sunday marked the chance to appreciate the progress, and a chance to recharge for another week of cleanup.

by Marcus Traxler, The Daily Republic, Mitchell, S.D. / August 13, 2019

(TNS) — On Sunday, the community of Burke took a rest.

It was the fifth day since the severe storm and EF-1 tornado tore through the center of town. Sunday marked the chance to appreciate the progress since the severe weather late on Aug. 6. And it provided a chance to recharge for another week of cleanup and moving forward.

Tom Glover, Burke’s mayor, said the community has stepped up in a big way since the storm. But community residents and leaders, including the Burke Fire Department, have been worn down by the first few days of cleanup and hard work. So while citizens could continue to work if they wanted to clean up their properties, Sunday was an official day off.

“We kind of shut things down on Sunday and gave everyone a chance to relax,” Glover said. “I think that was good for everyone. We’ve got a long haul and we want to keep everyone’s spirits up. We’re thankful for all of the help we’ve had so far.”

Within the first 48 hours of the storm, city streets were essentially cleared of debris, and piles of debris were ready to be hauled out. On Monday, power lines were already back in place through the heart of the storm’s damage, and most of the center of the community has regained power and water utility service. Nearby, the Burke Building Center’s structures were being torn down, and a team of 40 professional restoration laborers were working on the Burke school complex.

That community feeling was sustained on Monday. The South Dakota Farm Bureau grilled a community meal of burgers and hot dogs at the Burke Fire Hall, feeding scores of workers and community members.

Joel Johnson, Burke’s fire chief who has served as incident commander for the storm, said some responders from the American Red Cross and state Office of Emergency Management were able to leave early, because many of the initial needs were being taken care of by local community members.

“They said that never happens,” said Johnson, who has been on the fire department for more than 20 years. “We haven’t been pointing fingers at each other or calling each other names. … For the most part, we’ve got a lot of people who are still in good spirits, and that’s important.”

'We all needed help'

Travis and Kathy Serr had their Main Street home deemed a complete loss on Monday after it sustained serious structural damage. But according to others, the Serrs have split their time between working at home and helping their Burke neighbors. They said they didn't have any second thoughts about helping others in their own time of need.

“It’s a community, and we all needed help,” Kathy said. “If you think our town doesn’t stick together, look at our streets and look at the progress.”

Burke residents Travis and Kathy Serr talk about their experience following a tornado that hit their home Aug. 6 during a community lunch at the Burke Fire Hall on Monday in Burke. (Matt Gade / Republic)

The married couple of 28 years had lived in what was believed to be the oldest house in town, dating back to 1904. The house was formerly a hotel, and so a little bit of history will come down with the house.

“I was sleeping and I woke up to a freight train and smashing glass, and the house getting ripped apart,” Travis said, recalling the night of the storm.

“Nothing wakes him up, either,” Kathy joked in response.

For the time being, they’re prepared to live in a camper and with family members. Before the storm, Travis joked it might be time to find a new house, and the storm helped that process along.

“Now we have to figure out what we’re going to do with 28 years of stuff,” Kathy said.

The storm hit at 10:25 p.m. on Aug. 6, and had peak winds estimated at 110 mph, with a path nearly 4 miles long and 75 yards wide. Two people were reported with minor injuries.

The Serr family is among a growing segment of displaced individuals in Burke. Both Glover and Johnson said the number of people displaced by last week’s storm has climbed, but it wasn’t clear how many people were affected.

Johnson also estimated that as many as 3,000 trees were destroyed by the storm, up from the roughly 300 estimated immediately after the storm.

“We have tree damage everywhere,” he said. “We probably underestimated how much of our time was going to be dedicated to cleaning up trees.”

One of the factors that has caused issues since the Aug. 6 storm has been the threat of more severe weather. A tornado warning for Gregory County threatened the communities of Dallas, Gregory and Burke, but dipped south and resulted in no serious damage. Nevertheless, Burke received more than 2 inches of rain on Friday, and had another seven-tenths of an inch of rain on Sunday into Monday. That rain made it difficult to haul tree and storm debris away to the city’s dump sites.

“We don’t need more rain, that’s for sure,” Glover said.

Rich Dobesh, who owns the Burke Body Shop located next door to the Serr house, said his business was unaffected despite being located within 50 yards of homes that were completely destroyed. But his business has been able to help with one major need.

“Everyone is looking for glass,” he said. “I’ve been able to help with that.”

Dobesh said the tornado has been testing for everyone who lives in Burke, but his hometown has responded as he hoped.

“You look at all of the people here, and everyone who is working together,” he said. “It’s a good feeling for everyone in this community to have.”

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©2019 The Daily Republic (Mitchell, S.D.)

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