People in Castlewood, a town just south of Watertown, are still working to return to normal a month after a wave of destructive May storms.
In this community of about 600, piles of debris and broken tree limbs sit on the edge of town. Some homes and buildings show fresh wood from repairs, while in other places a hole in the ground is the only sign of a former structure. Fallen trees with upturned roots are everywhere, and debris still litters some yards.
Along with heavy winds and rains, the National Weather Service reported 16 tornadoes hit eastern South Dakota and southwestern Minnesota on May 12, ranging in intensity from EF0 to EF2. Castlewood was hit by an EF2 tornado that traveled along the ground for two miles with 120-mile winds.
Mayor Brian Ries says they are still assessing the extent of the damage in town.
“We’ve come a long ways,” Ries said. “We’ve got a lot of cleanup to do yet, a lot of rebuilding process to go through. I think most people’s mentality right now is one day at a time type of thing.”
In total, around 20 structures in Castlewood are destroyed while another 80 are damaged. The community has reported no fatalities or major injuries.
The school building, which houses all of the district’s Pre-Kindergarten through senior students, is one of the hardest hit locations in town. Superintendent Peter Books says almost half the school, specifically the elementary wing, is structurally unsound.
“We won’t be able to utilize that for a while, and whether that’s one or two school years, I don’t know that yet,” he said.
The school gym lost its glass-paneled roof and sections of the walls. The bus shed was also destroyed, and Books is unsure how many buses may need replacing.
Castlewood still had two weeks of school left after the storm. Books says students and staff had a chance to see each other again to get closure shortly after the disaster.
“We decided to hold staff meetings in churches on the Monday and Tuesday [after] and to bring the kids in on Wednesday and Thursday, really so they could see the staff and the staff could, of course, see them and to try to present some normal school even though it was very different,” he said.
Lake Area Technical College offered its campus to host Castlewood’s graduation ceremony, since visiting families were not allowed in town during the early cleanup.
The school board meets regularly to keep the community informed and to plan for next year. Books says they hope to start classes on time next fall using the undamaged sections of the building. They may also use mobile classroom units depending on available space.
Summer school classes and Driver’s Ed are taking place in community churches.
Several homes are still in need of repairs a month later. Galen Swenson lives just a block north of the school. He says he lost his garage to the tornado, though his house was mostly unscathed. His neighbors, however, weren’t so lucky.
“[Their house] slid off the foundation about 15 feet, and they were in the basement at the time,” Swenson said.
Despite the uncertainties of the past month, Ries credits the community fire department, police department and other county emergency personnel for taking charge after the storms, as well as the community for coming together.
The mayor also says help has come from outside the community. Volunteers from around the area arrived to help clean up debris and damage, and nearby towns like De Smet are offering donations to help with repairs.
“It’s the support from outside of your community, let alone the support inside your community, that helps you get through something like this,” Ries said.
Books says community response has been very positive, and he feels more confident in the school district’s ability to bounce back from the disaster.
“We still have questions that aren’t answered; however, we’re making good progress, and I do feel we’ll be ready for the start of school,” he said.
Swenson also says he is impressed by volunteers from outside of the community and how quickly they arrived to help.
“The first couple two, three weeks, and the very next day, there were people from everywhere, volunteers I didn’t even know,” he said. “They were here three hours; chainsaws and fifty people off the street from who knows where, some local, some out of town, and just pitched in and would get a lot done, and then they would move onto the next house, and the next house, and all over town. It was amazing.”
People who suffered damage from the tornado can apply to the Castlewood Community Foundation for funding and other aid through the Castlewood Area Recovery Fund.
FEMA also assessed some of the damage in the area. Preliminary estimates report a total of $6.7 million in public infrastructure damages from the storm across 20 counties and two reservations. It’s not clear how much assistance the federal agency will provide.
Gov. Kristi Noem requested a presidential disaster declaration and issued Executive Order 2022-06 Friday to get more federal assistance in affected counties. She mentioned Castlewood specifically in the letter to President Joe Biden.