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August 11, 2014 10:18 PM

Rebuilding The Ranch

Near Highmore, SD

The Kusser family has called the Highmore area of South Dakota home for 127 years.  Simon Kusser has been around for 88 of those.

"The Lord has given me a hell of a memory," Kusser said, with a laugh.

Nearly 90, and still going strong, Kusser does not miss a beat when it comes to anything.  He especially lights up when he talks about his family, home and livelihood -- the K Lazy K Ranch.  You can trace its beginnings back to his mom and dad, Max and Mabel.  They laid a solid foundation on these acres.  The house they built, where they raised their children, is pretty strong, too.  If you drive by it now, you will notice the main floor is still standing, but the roof is missing.  As it turns out that was not by accident.

"He said, 'Chances are, if we have a bad storm, a tornado, it'll pull that roof off and that's what happened,'" Kusser said, noting a discussion that was had between his dad and a hired hand when they built the main house on the property.

On June 18, an EF 2 tornado tore through the K Lazy K Ranch.  Kusser's wife, Eileen, and three of their adult children made it into the basement.  Kusser, who grew up and raised his own family here, was in the hallway of the main floor as windows were blowing out.

"I just stood there and got there and hung on with both hands on the side of the door all I could,"  Kusser said.  Not one to leave things too serious, he ended his sentence with a joke about how holding on for dear life impacted his body: "This arm got a little longer."

The storm left behind a noticeable path of destruction.  10 of 12 buildings are destroyed or badly damaged.  Four grain bins are crumpled like tin foil.  New machines are now old news.  The family is still waiting on a final estimate, but expects at least $2 million in equipment damages alone.  The aftermath has also taken an emotional toll.

"The blue machinery shed.  That's where I had my wedding dance," Janice Kusser Talley said.  The blue machinery shed is no longer there. 

Talley said it is hard to see her childhood home in such bad shape.  Every building has a memory because she has spent so much time here with her loved ones.

"The farm was a place where people came," Talley said.

That has not changed. Nearly 100 people showed up to help minutes after the tornado hit, including friends and complete strangers.

"I saw bankers.  I saw cowboys.  I saw farmers.  I saw merchants.  Everybody," Charlie Bloomenrader, family friend, said.

"There were grain trailers across the road.  It was pouring rain.  There was probably ten people on my mom's house, you know, putting in rafters and temporary roof and, I mean, that's what saved my mother's house," Talley said.

They have stuck around.  Nearly two months later, handfuls of people are still helping rebuild this family's life.

"You see the worst situation that can happen to a family, and then you see the best of people come out because of it," Bloomenrader said.

About an hour up the road is another area dealing with tornado damage.  Wessington Springs made national headlines after a tornado destroyed or damaged dozens of homes and businesses.  FEMA, and other agencies, went there to help.  The Kussers said they have not seen any governmental agency where they live.

"The community has just surrounded us.  I mean, it wasn't anything to do with the government, or the politicians, or we didn't have the Red Cross or the Guard.  It was the community, the farming community, pulling together to help one of their own," Talley said.

Though the Kusser family has lost a lot, they have also realized just how much they have in the friends and family who have stepped up to help out.  A tornado can come and destroy everything in its path, but it cannot tear down the relationships that strengthen an entire community.

"The farm is a place where people are welcome," Talley said.

When talking about his lifetime home, Kusser has a lot to remember -- but in all of his 88 years here, these acts of kindness from others are moments he will never forget. 

"Well, it's amazing, isn't it?" Kusser said.

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