Experts worry about decades long gap in Sioux Falls tornado activity

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Our neck of the woods is no stranger to dangerous weather. We're just five weeks removed from that blizzard that dumped more than 14 inches of snow on Sioux Falls.

While we've also dealt with our fair share of ice storms, wind storms and even floods it has been decades since a tornado has touched down in the city.

For those whose job it is to track severe weather and warn people about it that's a fact they are both thankful for and terrified of.

They are the terrifying creatures millions fear this time of year.
Sometimes they are wispy fingers that dance along the landscape.
Other times they are literal monsters: tall and wide with fierce winds inside.
At the National Weather Service office in Sioux Falls....there is a clock ticking. It's not one you can hear. But it's there nonetheless and it comes with a question: this year will Sioux Falls' luck continue? Or will this be the year that luck runs out?

"I think that's probably our biggest nightmare is to have a tornado move through the city of Sioux Falls." For years, Todd Heitkamp was a Warning Coordination Meteorologist for the Sioux Falls National Weather Service so he has decades of experience tracking severe weather here and then studying it after the fact.
He was recently named Meteorologist-In-Charge of the Sioux Falls office.
And he says in all the years he has been here.....which is since the mid-90's....Sioux Falls has seen some close calls where tornadoes are concerned. "We've had a number of cases where we've had the signatures on the radar and actually issued Tornado Warnings and had the outdoor warnings sirens be activated because of that threat but nothing materialized. Maybe few funnel clouds here or there but nothing actually touched down."

Nothing actually touched down and when you check the records you find that no tornado has touched down within Sioux Falls city limits in nearly three decades. "The last tornado we've had within the city limits of Sioux Falls was down by the VA hospital in the 80's."

That tornado touched down in this area in July of 1989. It was rated at F1 tornado.....those types of twisters can have winds up to 112 miles per hour. And for people who lived here back in 1989....they remember what that storm did and how it changed their lives.

"It was a feeling like something had...the walls and just....." Nearly 29 years later, Peter Gregory still doesn't have all the words necessary to describe what that night was like when the skies turned dark and the winds blew. "The number of branches in the side of our house looked like the King had told the longbow corps to fire away." Gregory says the winds from that tornado blew tree branches into the side of his house and they stuck there. His house has no basement so his family took shelter on the main floor and Gregory says he saw something he had never seen before or seen since. "The windows in our house bulging out like they were not quite like balloons but like Plexiglas."

His windows....bowing outwards...from the pressure of the tornado moving by. "It was a definitive feeling in the house and then to watch and feel the pressure and the windows going out."

All things considered the damage was minor but the memory of that night sticks with Peter Gregory.
But there are thousands of people who live in Sioux Falls who have never known the experience of a tornado touching down in the city.

"30 years? Yeah it's a long time." Lynn DeYoung is the Emergency Management Director for Minnehaha County. "Does it worry me? It does."

DeYoung is worried that people in Sioux Falls are developing a cavalier attitude about tornadoes because to many it seems like tornadoes don't touch down here. The threat doesn't seem imminent.
DeYoung says even with the memories of the 2003 Tornado Tuesday outbreak in southeastern South Dakota.....none of those touched down in Sioux Falls. "There's no magic shield around Sioux Falls. There's no deal we have with Mother Nature. It's all about severe weather. It happens when it wants, where it wants and based on weather patterns that we still don't fully understand."

"I think it has just been the luck of the draw. There's nothing that prevents a tornado from moving through the city of Sioux Falls or minimizes the chances of that occurring." Which brings us back to Todd Heitkamp at the Sioux Falls National Weather Service who tells me his team and others work hard to sound the alarm that people need to know a tornado touchdown in Sioux Falls is possible. But his concern is that few people are listening because few people truly believe there is a real risk. "I say that all the time it's not a matter of if it's a matter of when and we don't know when that when will be and that's why we as the entire city of Sioux Falls and the people that live in it need to be prepared of that occurring for that when moment."

Peter Gregory knows it can happen. He's lived through it and his message to those who don't think it can is blunt. "The minute you get complacent with Mother Nature you've labeled yourself an idiot."

So the message here: tornadoes can touch down in Sioux Falls. You just heard from a man who experienced it. When a Tornado Warning is issued, take it seriously. Don't think about the past. Think about you and your family's safety at that moment and then take action.