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Ten years ago, a series of tornados swept through southern Minnesota, causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage in towns like St. Peter, Comfrey and LeCentre. (Photo courtesy of Jerry Hawbaker)

Ten years after devastating tornadoes, communities thriving

by Sea Stachura, Minnesota Public Radio
March 28, 2008

Ten years ago at least five tornadoes ripped through south central Minnesota. At one point, the funnels were a mile and a half wide, spinning 150 to 200 mph. Two people died, about 200 others were injured. Comfrey and St. Peter were damaged so badly that residents worried their towns would shrivel up and disappear. Instead, these towns have managed a remarkable recovery.

St. Peter, Minn. — Comfrey is a dot on the plains of southwestern Minnesota. Linda Wallin was mayor at the time of the tornado. She gives a car window tour of Comfrey's main street.

"The bank, which was the only building that really stood intact," Wallin pointed out. "Right across from it is the old hospital building, which is now a clinic. And you can take a right here into the restaurant."

WOULD COMFREY SURVIVE?

Eighty-five percent of Comfrey was flattened, including the school. Wallin said after the tornado came through, she went upstairs and found a boat in her living room. Then she looked out her back door and saw a fountain of liquid fertilizer.

"And there was anhydrous spewing into the air. I can't even tell you how many feet into the air. Every building on main street was gone," Wallin recalled. "They were all crushed, all demolished. The cars were all buried in bricks and tin. I stood there a few seconds and thought, I'm the only one alive in this town."

Two people -- an older farmer and a young boy -- were the only ones to die in the tornadoes. But Comfrey's survival was in question.

The school was gone, and without it, the businesses said they wouldn't rebuild. Days after the tornado, resident Vernon Peterson told MPR News he worried Comfrey would evaporate.

"Our town is getting smaller all the time. We've lost about 200 people in the last 15 years. If we lose the school -- I don't know, I don't have too much hope for the town," Peterson said at the time.

Former Mayor Linda Wallin said a disaster official gave her some hard advice.

"What he said to me that night was, 'You better hope that St. Peter got hit hard, because if they did you're going to benefit from that,'" she recalled.

Comfrey's municipal damages totalled about $7.5 million, not enough to net state or federal disaster money. Without those dollars, Comfrey likely couldn't rebuild on its own.

But if St. Peter was damaged significantly, then Comfrey had a chance.

As it turned out, St. Peter suffered damages totalling some $300 million, and disaster money flowed in for the entire region.

DAMAGE AND HOPE AT GUSTAVUS ADOLPHUS

Each year, Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter commemorates the anniversary of the tornado in Christ Chapel. The chapel is the center of the campus.

Before the tornado, the church's steeple peeked through the canopy of trees. It was the only sign of the campus as you drove south into town. The tornado wrenched the chapel's steeple off.

"And since things like the steeple were such visible markers in the community, when that was gone, everybody was like, well, this is the sign that the place is not going to continue," said Chaplain Brian Johnson.

The tornado threw the steeple's cross to the other side of the campus.

This year's prayer service in Christ Chapel began with the congregation bowing to the four winds.

"As we look north, we come to ask you, oh God, for the strength and power to bear what is cold and harsh in life," the prayer began.

An acolyte carried that bent steel cross from the old steeple into the church. Johnson lifted it over the baptismal font.

"As we raise this cross, may it be a symbol for us of movement and hope," Johnson prayed.

Johnson said even five years ago, the memories of the tornado were still too raw for many people. They didn't feel secure. But he said the promise of security was always there.

Just after the tornado struck on that March evening in 1998, Johnson looked around Christ Chapel and saw that the steeple and roof had been torn away. The pews were pitted with rocks.

"It reminded me of a skeleton. The wind was sort of whistling through. The water draining into all the books," Johnson recalled.

"That was why I was so mystified when I could hear a creaking going back and forth," Johnson continued. "And as I got near the front of the chapel, the creaking was the eternal flame going back and forth -- the container was. And there was the flame, still burning."

Every building on campus was damaged. One dorm had to be demolished. The college sustained between $50 million and $60 million in damages. Damages for the town and campus together were estimated to be $300 million. In St. Peter, 2,000 homes were mangled and 17,000 trees were destroyed.

Farms located outside the towns were hard hit too. In some places, entire herds of cattle were killed.

SEARCHING FOR A SAFER HOME

Harvey Stadick was luckier than most. Stadick lives on a farm between St. Peter and Comfrey. Stadick had raised hogs, starting the business by himself 32 years before the tornado.

The storm took every single shed and barn on his property.

"People in town, when they've had a job for 20 or 30 years I'm sure that's part of their life too, but this is kind of your dream -- what you built up. That's the hard part," said Stadick. "It's a whole lot more than stone and brick and wood and metal. Your life is gone between going downstairs and coming upstairs."

A week before the tornado, Stadick had sold his young hogs so he could open a finishing barn, where hogs are fattened for market.

Unlike a lot of the farmers nearby, Stadick said he was lucky he didn't have animals at the time of the tornado. But he had lost his career. At 53, he wasn't about to rebuild all those barns.

For years, Stadick thought about the tornadoes. The wood-frame houses on other farms were blasted away. His concrete block home lost its roof. The image of the three little pigs, and that wolf of a tornado, stuck in his head.

"The straw, the wood and the brick. Except in our case, the roof still went off the brick house," said Stadick. "I'd lay at night wondering, how do you hold a roof onto a house in a tornado?"

You build a house shaped like an upturned soup bowl. Stadick said he learned that a dome building in Nagasaki, Japan, had withstood the atomic bomb.

"And that kind of struck me, that's a powerfully strong building," Stadick said. "I wouldn't have done it otherwise. You get thinking about things like that a little more."

Seven years after the tornado, he and his wife built a dome-shaped house.

MORE EYES ON THE SKIES

After the tornado, safety became a preoccupation for a lot of people in the region. Mary and Al Hildebrandt say their daughter Molly, who was 12 at the time, called the weatherman at a local radio station every day.

"She became the best friend with the weatherman at KRBI. She would call him so often they would recognize her voice," said Hildrebrandt. "She called multiple times a day [asking], 'What kind of clouds are those?"

Dark, angry storms continued to roll into the region during the spring and summer of 1998. The Hildebrandt's daughter couldn't sleep, wouldn't get on school buses and called home every time a siren went off.

The couple has two other daughters. The oldest, who was 14, pretended the tornado was no big deal. Their 10-year-old cried about it often.

The tornado had sheered off the second story of the Hildebrandt's St. Peter home. Months went by before they could tear it down, in order to rebuild.

Then they watched their house come down as though it were fireworks on the Fourth of July.

"And we sang, 'Our House is a Very Fine House.' We sat up on the garage, on the roof in lawn chairs, and watched them tear the house down."

They rebuilt in the same spot, and what they remember most about that time are the feelings, like surprise and exhaustion. They also remember the help. The St. Peter judge did their laundry for weeks.

BRIDGING THE TOWN-AND-GOWN GAP

Before the tornadoes, Gustavus and St. Peter co-existed with some tension -- the campus on the hill, the town down below. This disaster could have exacerbated it by pitting one institution against another for resources. Instead, the town and the college rebuilt together.

Gustavus alumnus Kelvin Miller volunteered after the tornado by picking up shards of glass from the hillside of Gustavus's campus.

"People were literally volunteering in each other's yards, whether it was the yard of Christ Chapel or someone's home down on College Avenue," recalled Miller.

Major donors of the college, like Kraus Anderson Construction, brought in crews not just for the campus, but the city, too.

St. Peter's former mayor Jerry Hawbaker says while the town lost its community center, the county building and more, the tornado actually helped St. Peter grow more.

"We have done so much work outside of the tornado. When we finished up work from repairing and rebuilding from the tornado, we just kept going. Like OK, we need affordable housing, bad," said Hawbaker.

So the city built affordable housing. It upgraded the hospital. Industrial developments came to town. The town's population has increased by 1,000 people.

Campus officials say they've got better dorms and stronger enrollment. The town and the campus replanted thousands of trees.

In Comfrey, the town's population has shrunk slightly, from 425 to 367 today. But the school is back. The city rebuilt the restaurant, and it remains a daily gathering spot for people from all over town.

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