Storm Aftermath: 'It's Like a Bomb Went Off'

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August 11, 2010 by   - () Leave a Comment

Sunday wasn’t the birthday Elsie Metzler had in mind. But it’s one she certainly won’t forget.

The day began pleasantly enough when her husband, Tom, served her breakfast. That afternoon, they were both working as fee booth attendants at the Cottonwood campground west of Yankton, S.D. Elsie was assisting a couple when a torrential rain began to fall around 5 p.m., the Yankton Press & Dakotan reported

Five people and the Metzlers’ dog sought shelter in the fee booth at the entrance to the campground. However, one of the many trees in the area that were felled by winds estimated at 70 mph smashed into the corner of the building and nearly crushed its occupants.

“I thought the roof was gone, but it was actually the tree hitting,” Tom said. “It came down, and I tried to stay above (Elsie) and keep her covered.”

Elsie recalled, “Tom was behind me, and he was bleeding.”

Both of them were hospitalized briefly, but they were back at work Tuesday afternoon manning the fee booth at the Nebraska Tailwaters campground.

Tom has bruises on his head, back, shoulder and arm, but said he was just happy to be alive to talk about the experience.

She recollected that, in the hours before the storm, vehicles had lined the campground and filed their way out. It was fortunate that the severe weather hit well after the 4 p.m. check-out time, Elsie said.

“It could have been really tragic,” she said. “We had more than 40 camping spots clear out that day.”

It is estimated that 100 people were in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Cottonwood campground at the time, and 40 were in its Nebraska Tailwaters campground on the Nebraska bank below Gavins Point Dam. The recreation area straddles the states of South Dakota and Nebraska and was formed by damming the Missouri River.

Nearly 48 hours after high winds wreaked havoc in the area, Corps employees were busy picking their way through a sea of debris at the Cottonwood campground Tuesday. It is now designated as a hard-hat area for workers because of the many branches dangling menacingly from the trees.

True to its namesake, cottonwood trees that probably date back 60 years populate the recreation area. Few were unscathed from Sunday’s storm. The unlucky ones were completely uprooted.

One such casualty that had fallen on top of a comfort station was being lifted by a loader Tuesday afternoon. Crews had made headway on cleaning up the north end of the campground, but portions of the south end had yet to be touched.

Throughout the campground, ribbons on the trees still standing denoted their fate. Dozens of the trees have two ribbons wrapped around their trunks, meaning they are so scarred that they will be cut down. Others have one ribbon, and will only have some branches trimmed.

“It’s like a bomb went off,” said Karla Zeutenhorst, a park ranger with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “Any time you see this kind of natural destruction, it makes you sad. This is a beautiful campground. One of the things people like about this area is the big, beautiful cottonwood trees. The landscape of this park is going to change, and it’s going to change dramatically.”

She estimates that dozens of trees will have to be cut down.

“We’re getting as many of the trees and branches that we can get,” Zeutenhorst said. “Then, we will have to hire a contractor to come in here to cut and trim the remaining trees.”

Campers were cleared out of the area Sunday night because of the number of large branches only tenuously hanging from trees.

However, a few camping units remain, along with tents that have been flattened.

Les Sherman of Laurel, Neb., was in the park Tuesday afternoon to retrieve his camper. He and others worked to clear the unit of its contents before taking it to a junkyard.

During the storm, Sherman and his wife had sought shelter in a nearby comfort station. Meanwhile, the back end of the camper was smashed by a falling tree.

“There’s no fixing that,” Sherman said, adding that he has endured some severe weather at the campground in the past. “I’ve been through some storms, but nothing like this. I feel pretty lucky not to have been hurt.”

Cottonwood has 75 campsites and Nebraska Tailwaters has 42 sites. During the peak camping season from April to October, the campgrounds are usually more than 80 percent full and completely booked on weekends.

“We’re lucky there were not more injuries,” Zeutenhorst said.

Corps officials had originally aimed to have the Cottonwood campground opened by this weekend. But after having more time to survey the damage, they don’t believe that will be possible. Instead, they will aim for Aug. 20.

Some trees and branches are downed at the Nebraska Tailwaters campground, but they have not forced it to close.

In all, the Corps estimates the cleanup will cost $20,000.

In the meantime, Zeutenhorst asked that onlookers stay clear of the Cottonwood campground and stay off any downed trees in the area of the Gavins Point Dam.

“We’ve seen people, for photo opportunities, coming out and standing on these downed trees,” she said. “That’s really unsafe, so we’re encouraging the public to not do that.”

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