Don Zeller had lived in Pierre for just a month when, on a summer afternoon 40 years ago, the sky turned dark and gloomy and a severe thunderstorm rolled into town.
“I did what any good South Dakotan would do,” Zeller recalled, “I went out to the porch and looked up at the sky.”
What he saw in the sky that day was an EF3 tornado, which touched down at roughly 3:45 p.m. on July 23, 1973.
The Enhanced Fujita, or EF, Scale measures a tornado’s estimated wind speed and the damage it will do to various things, such as hardwood and softwood trees, outhouses and barns, schools and high rise buildings. An EF0 tornado has winds between 65 and 85 miles per hour, while an EF1 has 86- to 110-mile winds.
The EF3 that hit that day would have had wind speeds between 136 and 165 miles per hours and enough force to uproot trees, tear the roofs off buildings and break windows and doors. Pierre has not seen a tornado like it since, and it’s also the worst one Zeller has ever personally seen in South Dakota.
“You knew just standing outside there was going to be some damage from the rumblings and shakings,” he said.
Zeller, who worked for the state Department of Transportation at the time, was standing outside the Becker Hanson Building along Church Street. He watched as the tornado went through the site of the Kneip Building, then under construction, on Governor’s Drive. The twister knocked over some of the steel beams in place and damaged the concrete floor units that had been installed.
Those broken floor panels would later be reused by the city as the pedestrian bridges crossing Capital Creek in Griffin Park, Zeller said.
According to a Capital Journal article from July 24 of that year, the tornado went through a seven- to nine-block long and two-block wide section of on the western edge of town. It destroyed at least one building, severely damaged two more and lifted a mobile home before throwing it on to the ground upside down. The article says 10 people were injured, but no one was killed.
Damages at the time were estimated to run $165,000, but Mike Fowle, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Aberdeen, said during an interview in May the total was probably between $1 million and $5 million.
Fowle said the Pierre area, or a 75-mile circle with the city at the center, will see on average two tornadoes a year, but most are relatively mild, ranking zero or one on the EF Scale. The last tornado that came close to the city was in 2004, when an EF1 struck a ranch between Fort Pierre and Hayes.
According to an Associated Press article on the 1973 tornado, “the severe weather was the result of a cold front moving through the state.”