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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Eaton visits S.D. area hit hard by October storm

Winter came early to South Dakota last October in a deadly storm called Atlas. In January, ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth A. Eaton visited the devastated area to tell ranchers they won’t be forgotten and to pledge help. 

Eaton and David Zellmer, South Dakota Synod bishop, visited ranches and the towns of Bison, Meadow, Piedmont and Sturgis to see firsthand how Atlas impacted 14 western counties that suffered livestock casualties. The state estimated a loss of 30,000 livestock, but Lisa Adler, Lutheran Social Services of South Dakota in Aberdeen, reported a loss of 91,000 cows, horses and sheep based on applications it received. But that number may be low, she added.

When the storm struck, cattle had yet to grow their winter coats and were still in less-protected summer pastures. Freezing rain turned to several feet of snow. In 60-70 mph winds, livestock tried to find shelter in the draws, creek areas and near the banks of a dugout. Instead, they became snow-covered and died of water in their lungs and hypothermia.

Eaton visited land still dotted with the corpses of cattle and heard the ranchers’ emotional stories. 

Adler, also on the tour, said South Dakotans have an “I’ll pull myself up by my bootstraps” attitude and often won’t ask for help because they believe others may be worse off. So LSS initiated a confidential nomination form whereby friends and neighbors submitted names of those who might need help.

At American Lutheran Church in Bison, the delegation met members of 11 churches in northwest South Dakota and southwest North Dakota. 

“This is a really big deal,” said Dana Lockhart as he introduced the guests. Lockhart is pastor of Grand River Lutheran Church in Buffalo and Prairie Fellowship Parish (American, Indian Creek and Rosebud congregations) in hard-hit Perkins County.

Zellmer called the early blizzard one of “unprecedented proportions.” 

Eaton acknowledged that the storm will have a “multiyear effect” and that, even though several months had elapsed since the storm hit, “we haven’t forgotten about you.” She promised to carry the stories home with her. 

With an initial $150,000 from Lutheran Disaster Response, LSS made certain people had money for fuel, food and medication. Volunteer management areas were set up at 1,100 sites in the 14 counties to assist with debris cleanup. Free mental health services are available.

Although LSS doesn’t normally offer relief to businesses, Adler said an exception was made for ranchers. More than $4.2 million has been raised through the Ranchers’ Relief Fund worldwide. In December, $774,000 was given to 611 ranchers. 

Michael Stadie, program director for Lutheran Disaster Response, promised that northwest South Dakota and southwest North Dakota will never be in a “blind spot,” adding, “We are all in this together.”

Eaton and Zellmer visited the ranch of Gary and Janet Jorgensen, who lost 22 percent of their cows and 7 percent of their calves. Despite a 45-60 mph wind, the delegation took a walking tour of the creek and draw where the Jorgensen cattle perished. 

“They were the young cows that we would have had sustaining our herd for seven to eight years,” said Janet Jorgensen.

The family started its herd in 1908 and succeeding generations have built on it. Janet Jorgensen’s father had given each of his three children a cow that had originated in his mother’s herd. They were incorporated to make the herd a lifelong, family program. 

The Jorgensen’s son, Chauncey, Midland, S.D., told the group how he rode in on horseback and was the first to reach the herd at his parents’ ranch. A lay preacher, he recounted his experience the following Sunday (see excerpt).

“Yes, it happened. It’s a chapter in our life,” said Janet Jorgensen, vowing to move forward and look to the future.


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