MCCOOK COUNTY, S.D. (KELO) — Two weeks ago, McCook County was rocked by hurricane force winds during a storm that swept across much of eastern South Dakota.
BJ Stiefvater is the McCook County Emergency Manager, a position he’s been in for 4 years, though he was deputy manager for 8 years before that. The damage from the recent storm is unprecedented in his time in the position.
Stiefvater says that currently, the best estimate for damages in the county is $100 million, though he notes that number will likely end up being higher. How much higher? “I would say somewhere between 100 and 175 [million] is probably where it’s going to settle down,” he said when asked to give a ballpark estimate.
With more than 570 square miles in area, and with a population of over 5,500 people, McCook County is very rural. This means that the damage, which affected every part of the county, was very spread out, and included many agricultural structures, which helped drive up the cost of the damage.
“Grain bins are anywhere from $150-200 thousand, and everyone lost a grain bin. Some people lost 6; 10; 12 grainbins,” said Stiefvater. He also pointed to the destruction of machine sheds and hog barns, all of which can run around $1 million.
Cataloging all of this damage is a daunting task, as it involves taking account of all damage sustained to both public and private property in the county. Such a task could be very time consuming. “It would take me and a staff of 15-20 people two or three weeks to go up and down every single road [in the county],” said Stiefvater.
However, such extensive on-the-ground canvassing isn’t necessary.
“We actually have an airplane that flies and does the Pictometry for damage assessment,” said Stiefvater. This plane flies over the landscape, taking high resolution pictures of the land and property below. “They actually have algorithms that can see changes in structures. They just finished doing an update for us here last year — and they started flying two or three days after the [storm].”
Once this project is finished, the algorithm will be able to compare the most recent overview of the county with the one from last year and will pinpoint spots where structures have been altered, automatically highlighting damaged property for the county.
This is crucial due to the extent of the damage.
“Everyone was affected in some way,” said Stiefvater, who estimates that upwards of 90% of the county’s residents experienced some type of damage. “Whether it was missing a shingle or two here or there or some trim — as far as severely impacted — I would say 20-25% would be a safe estimate, and that means complete destruction of buildings.”
The most important things for Stiefvater fall in this order: Life; Property; Environment. He calls it miraculous that no lives were lost in McCook County during the storm.
“My first concern,” said Stiefvater, recalling his reaction upon realizing the extent of the damage from the storm “is we’re going to have people trapped everywhere and we’re going to be recovering bodies.”
Those thoughts came to Stiefvater as he considered the vulnerabilities of the county, such as farmers who may have been in collapsed machine sheds, or families who may have been camping when the winds hit. “I was expecting to get a phone call to bring the ambulance out to a shed somewhere because somebody was laying underneath something and was found.” Stiefvater is also deputy coroner for the county.
Stiefvater expects to have damage reports continue to trickle in throughout the coming weeks, but says the county process for submitting damage estimates is nearly complete. After this, it will go to the governor, and eventually to the president to declare a disaster and unlock federal relief money.