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Small Town Rebuilds After Tornado

April 4, 1999

SPENCER, S.D. (AP) _ Almost wiped off the map 10 months ago by a killer tornado, this prairie town is a checkerboard today _ new homes alternating with bare tracts of land where houses and businesses exploded into splinters of wood the size of half-dollars.

Residents trying to rebuild caught a break this winter, with temperatures mild enough to allow home-building and other construction to continue. A normal winter would have stopped progress in its snowy tracks.

``We’ve got a lot of rebuilding to do. But it’ll work,″ says Mayor Rocky Kirby, 65, who has lived in Spencer since 1953. ``Crews were on the roofs putting shingles on. They would have had to stop if the winter had been raging.″

Every month this winter was warmer than normal. February’s average temperature was almost 30 degrees, 10 degrees above average, says Mike Fuhs, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sioux Falls.

Flower bulbs have yet to peek through the chilly soil, and the trees are still bare of green. But spring is in the air. Last spring, on May 30, a tornado with wind estimated at 260 mph destroyed all but 30 of Spencer’s 186 buildings. The twister killed six people and injured 150, half of what was then the town’s population of 320.

Surrounded by fields of corn and soybeans and pastures for livestock, Spencer was settled in the 1880s as a railroad stop. Like many tiny towns on the Great Plains, Spencer had been struggling long before May 30.

The population was aging. The school, movie house and lumber yard had closed. Many people were sure the tornado would be the end of Spencer.

But thanks to $5 million in government aid and private donations, 22 new homes have gone up since the tornado. A new bank and two apartment buildings should be complete by May 1. The new fire station, library and post office will open in late summer.

Still, the town never recovered its already dwindling population. Kirby estimates 140 residents are left.

Most who moved away were elderly. Some went to live with relatives in other towns or other states. Others moved into apartments in nearby Mitchell.

The town’s average age was 65-70 before the tornado. Now the average age is 50, Kirby guesses.

``Who wants to rebuild at 80 years old? You’d never see the end of it,″ says Kirby’s wife, Juanita.

Planners say the rebuilding of Spencer can be a model for invigorating rural communities.

Part of that restoration will start late this month. The tornado shredded many of Spencer’s trees, so on Arbor Day, April 30, state forestry officials will kick off a three-year program to plant 2,000 trees and shrubs.

The trees will be strategically planted to reduce wind, curb snow drifts and help cool the town in summer, says John Ball, an associate professor with South Dakota State University’s department of forestry, horticulture, landscape and parks.

``We had a lot of beautiful trees planted 80 to 100 years ago,″ Kirby says. ``Ash, elms, a few cottonwoods, beautiful big shade trees.″

The Kirbys are confident that, as more houses go up and new trees are planted, former residents will return and new families will move in.

``They like living in a little town,″ Mrs. Kirby said. ``They don’t want to send their kids to a big school.″

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