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Northwest Salmon




After a storm comes a calm

Newly retired Day County emergency manager

Wes Williams confronts career

by Emre K. Erku

He left a life of death, natural disaster and burning buildings.

After almost 10 years of aiding the community through hardships, Day County Office of Emergency Management Director Wes Williams informed commissioners last month that enough was enough, and the very next day his usually cluttered office at the sheriff’s department was vacant.

Whatever compelled Williams to abruptly retire now is unknown to the public; however, what’s certain is that for the last 30 plus years, enduring some of the ugliest aspects of humanity in an otherwise pleasant prairie of Northeastern South Dakota, his duties as not just emergency manager but ex-South Dakota Highway patrolman were, to say the least, tough.

In his words he explained that no matter the call, duress was duress, and it was his job to help.

“An emergency to you could be a very big emergency but it could be a small problem,” said Williams while sitting comfortably inside his Webster kitchen. “Anybody, if they say they had a problem and it was an emergency, to me it was a big emergency, because to them it is. A lot of the times the flooding and the hail and the wind is a shorter term emergency, but if it still impacts you and you lose your house or your apartment or your car, it’s a big emergency.”

This 24/7 responsibility requires wearing many hats.

According to Williams, once disaster struck, or was about to strike, it was up to him to quickly get on the phone and find any available resources to abate the situation. For example, if a family was displaced by a house fire, he’d contact representatives from the Salvation Army for clothes, and money would be offered to finance temporary housing. If his weather spotters could foresee an oncoming hail storm, or if funnel clouds formed in the skies, it was his job to alert everybody in the area. Even dealing with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and trying to apply for federal grants, no stone was unturned.

“It isn’t that I’ve done a good job. I really don’t know if I have, but I do know a lot of people that I can get a hold of,” said Williams. “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”

And when you deal with FEMA, the feds and the state, says Williams, there’s a lot to be done. This was especially true after 11 homes in the Day County area and 60 homes in the Waubay area were basically swallowed by lake water earlier in the decade. Being many people were displaced, he considers his efforts to try and find them new lives to be his greatest accomplishment.

“There was a lot dollars involved there; a lot of people affected,” he said. “There was some that we moved, some that we bought out and demoed.”

If you ask, Williams would agree that, despite all the hardships attached with someone losing their possessions, if they didn’t lose their lives, it’s a win in itself. Williams said he can “tell you every one of the fatalities” he’s encountered throughout his career, but even telling someone everything they knew is gone is a difficult feat in itself.

“How do you go in and tell somebody you’re sorry?” said Williams. “I’ve had people that have been in house fires here that lost their house... We can build a new house, we can move them into a new apartment, we can do all this stuff. But we can’t replace people. I’ve always said a fire’s bad, but a fire can be good because no one got hurt. What else can you say?”

Actions sometimes speak louder than words, and, for Williams, who’s literally flown single engine planes to search for people reported missing, he has exemplified this idiom on numerous occasions.

Even at the end of his career, he still holds himself accountable for the inactions that could’ve helped the county, like spending taxpayer money on more warning systems and shelters. The county alone encompasses more than 1,000 square miles of mainly farmland and pothole lakes, and not a lot of publicly funded buildings which may prevent someone from imminent death. In such a sometimes hostile environment, when a missing person alert is sent through the airwaves, fears persist.

“My biggest fear is a fatality regardless of what the cause was because somebody’s at a loss,” said Williams. “When you lose somebody, we all lose something. They had something to contribute to day to day life in the community... We’ve found some people that were missing and came out OK. Unfortunately, we’ve found some people that were not OK.”

Which is why, Williams said, an OEM director has to truly care about the people, and must answer to everyone. In this line of work, with everything that’s happened, Williams said questions are always going to be asked. Whatever the cause of a tragedy may be, inquiries can emerge faster than an oncoming hail storm. On the bright side, however, to balance out these tedious tasks is Williams’ ultimate fascination with Glacial Lakes weather.

Almost like a sixth sense, Williams, who said he may have enjoyed being a meteorologist had he not joined the Navy in 1970, farmed or participated in long life of law enforcement, loved simply enough, to watch the weather. One of his theories of why Day County receives such inclement weather is because of its elevation.

And despite literally chasing storms, the most dangerous aspect of his job, Williams noted, didn’t ever occur outside.

“Usually doughnuts and juice can be an overdose,” he joked.

Now a retired man, with a wife, three kids and six grandchildren, a love for the outdoors, classic cars and gardening, when Williams looks back at it all, he’s certain he did all that he could. What’s left he said, is abating the to-do list with his family.

“I feel comfortable and satisfied with what I’ve done,” Williams ended. “I’ve slept good for the last week. There’s no more pressure.”

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