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Disaster: A sudden calamitous event, producing great material loss, damage, or distress. – Merriam Webster Dictionary

Webster’s uses floods, mining collapses, and even war to define a disaster but the definition is too limiting.

Ask residents of Delmont, Wessington Springs, or Spencer.

In the past 17 years, these three South Dakota communities unluckily found themselves in the path of one of nature’s most destructive forces: a tornado.

Why would this happen? Small towns – and these communities are emblematic of what we South Dakotans see as the good life – already face long odds for survival. A declining population, loss of business and professional services, aging infrastructure, and eroding tax base combine to challenge the most courageous of rural communities.

Was this an “act of God,” as has been reported? That would be hard to fathom, unless the Creator is one who takes delight in punishing the innocent, and that definition seems outside the Christian understanding of the faith.

When a tornado ripped through the small town of Spencer, 20 miles east of Mitchell, in May of 1998, many of us living in the area were able to see first hand the power of nature when focused in such a destructive manner. Like the disaster of last week in Delmont, homes were turned inside out or leveled, vehicles flew like metal birds, and residents huddled in horror. Unlike in Delmont, where no one was killed, six Spencer residents died in the storm, which has been described as one of the worst tornadoes in this state’s history.

In Wessington Springs in June of last year, a tornado destroyed more than 50 homes and damaged other types of property. A number of injuries, but no fatalities, were reported. The effects of that storm can still be seen by driving through the south side of Wessington Springs, where the destruction was most prevalent

Here’s a working definition of “disaster”: tornadoes that destroy and sometimes kill.

The hardship caused by these “forces of nature” is nearly unimaginable. Lives, when spared, are turned upside down. Prized possessions, such as photo albums and family heirlooms, are gone with the howling wind.

Still, these small town souls persevere. They help each other, and they welcome help from the region. Spencer rebuilt. Wessington Springs is rebuilding. Delmont will do the same.

It’s what we do in South Dakota.

May 20, 2015