25 years after tornadoes, communities, trees restored

Mar. 26—Ed Lee, executive director of the St. Peter Chamber, who was a reporter for the St. Peter Herald at the time, said the devastating tornadoes that hit the area 25 years ago this week produced heroic efforts.

"One of my favorite memories is Dave Neiman, who owns Arrow Ace Hardware. His building was in shambles, the whole back was collapsed. He was standing at the cash register that wasn't working and he was just handing stuff to people telling them to take it and come back and pay sometime. And they did."

And while Lee knows area communities are quick to offer mutual aid, he was surprised by the massive and quick response as he came out of the Herald's basement on Minnesota Avenue to begin reporting and photographing the aftermath of the March 29, 1998, supercell that left miles-wide mass destruction from Comfrey in Brown County to northeast of St. Peter.

"It was Sunday at 5 p.m. when people are home and usually relaxing. But all these firetrucks and emergency vehicles from area towns just showed up. All these firetrucks immediately coming to the town just blew me away."

He also recalls businesses and others quickly helping motorists who were passing through the busy Highway 169 corridor as the tornado was approaching.

"The Dairy Queen opened their doors and got people into their cooler because it was solid."

Many took refuge inside the Nicollet County Courthouse complex and others took cover in businesses.

Lee remembers the heavy damage, including to businesses such as the jewelry store, brought fears of looting.

"The State Patrol was on both ends of town keeping any bad guys out."

The response from public agencies and a swarm of organized volunteers who descended on St. Peter helped the community begin to rebound faster than many thought possible.

Within a week after the storm, more than 85% of the debris in St. Peter was picked up. The community came together to house, feed and take care of each other. U.S. President Bill Clinton declared the area a national disaster, sending millions of dollars in funding.

Tree rebound

Two lives were lost and dozens injured in the tornadoes, while buildings, homes and infrastructure were ravaged.

And for many, it was the loss of a vast swath of mature trees that was also part of the lasting heartache.

"There are enough old trees that survived, but we lost so many trees. The pain in that is immense. Trees are sentimental to people," Lee said.

"But to reforest this town in a very managed and organized way was amazing."

Warren Wunderlich spent 30 years as the director of physical plant at Gustavus Adolphus College until retiring a few years ago.

He said the methodical tree replanting on campus was made easier and quicker because they had just a year before the tornado finished a master plan for the campus.{

One thing on that wish list was to redo the trees on the hillside in front of Old Main. "If you drove on College Avenue or 7th Street (below the campus), you couldn't really see Old Main because of the trees. After the tornado, all you saw was Old Main. It was disheartening with all the trees gone."

But the destruction of the trees also brought the opportunity to implement one of the goals of the master plan — planting crabapples on the hillside and having two walking paths up the hill.

"It was a great concept but I don't know that anyone would have been able to take a chainsaw to all those trees (to replace them with crabapples). But the tornado allowed us to do that."

Besides the crabapples, which won't grow so large as to block the view of Old Main, linden were planted on the outside of the two walkways. "They don't branch out so much and have such a big canopy," Wunderlich said.

Other trees that were planted on campus included maples around Circle Drive, trees that offer vibrant fall color.

Wunderlich said he recently looked at Google Earth photos of the campus from 1991 and from 2021. In some areas the density of the canopy is even better now than it was then. "It's pretty amazing what it looks like now."

Comfrey's recovery

Comfrey Mayor Gary Richter said the town has recovered and moved on from the devastating tornado.

"It's just another step in the history of the community. You move on. We look to tomorrow."

The town did lose a little population and a few businesses didn't reopen, but for the most part the community rebuilt. The population in 1998 stood at 400, while it's now 381.

"One of the first things discussed was whether the school was going to be rebuilt. They made a decision fairly soon to rebuild, and that was sort of a catalyst for businesses and people to rebuild. So that was a big deal."

The old 1918 portion of the school was torn down. There was new construction and renovation of the rest of the school.

With both Lutheran churches heavily damaged, the congregations combined and built a new church.

Richter said one big positive to grow out of the disaster was the community creating an Economic Development Agency and starting a low-interest revolving loan fund, using state grant money.

"The elevator was a big reason for that. It was heavily damaged and they borrowed from the revolving loan fund to rebuild. Seven businesses took advantage of that. Over the years there have been hundreds of thousands of dollars borrowed and paid back, so it's still benefiting the community."

Linda Wallin, who was mayor of Comfrey when the tornado hit, said the small town has done pretty well since the community rebuilt, but like a lot of small towns, it took some hits the past couple of decades.

"We did lose our pharmacy and hardware store, which was a big hit. But we have a thriving grocery store that people from 50 miles around come to and a lot of other businesses. We don't have an empty apartment in town and homes sell well," Wallin said.

"For a town of under 400, we have done pretty well."

The town is having a small event Wednesday night with former and current residents reminiscing about the tornado.

Comfrey to St. Peter

That Sunday started out warm and sunny, but by mid-afternoon storms rolled in and tornado warnings were issued.

The tornado outbreak unleashed was unseasonably strong and spawned 14 tornadoes in Minnesota, including 13 in a supercell that remained intact as it moved through Brown and Nicollet counties.

At 4 p.m. the storm devastated Comfrey in the corner of Brown County and tore through dozens of farms. In Comfrey, 75% of the structures were damaged or destroyed.

Then it hit parts of Hanska, Cambria, Judson and Courtland before turning east toward St. Peter.

The storm rolled into St. Peter at about 5 p.m., first hitting Gustavus, then the business district before it finally slowed as it got into Le Center at about 6 p.m.

"The tornado just took a bullseye on Gustavus," Lee said.

Every single building on the college campus was damaged, and more than 80% of the windows were broken, but few students were there because it was spring break. Only 60 people were on campus, which would normally have about 2,200 students.

Across the area more than 3,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed by the tornadoes, causing more than $235 million in damage ($432 million in today's dollars).

Six-year-old Dustin Schneider was killed when his family's van was swept from the road near St. Peter, and 85-year-old Louis Mosenden died from injuries he sustained when the storm hit his farmhouse in Hanska. There were more than 30 people injured by the storm.

The outbreak broke many early-season tornado records for Minnesota. The 14 tornadoes in the state were the most to ever touch down on a single day in March. The F4 tornado was the strongest ever recorded in March, and its 67-mile path was the longest ever recorded in the state.