Prior to 1998, only five tornadoes with a Fujita rating of F2 or greater had been recorded in the month of March in the entire state of Minnesota – none of which occurred on the same day.
But on March 29, a total of 14 tornadoes touched down in southern and central Minnesota, stretching from near the South Dakota and Iowa borders eastward to almost Wisconsin.
The 67-mile long track of the Comfrey-St. Peter tornado officially ranks fifth in the list of Top Five long track tornadoes in Minnesota history. By the time the tornado had reached Comfrey, it had achieved F3 status and was continuing to grow in strength.
Resulting in more than $225 million in damages, the Comfrey-St. Peter tornado outbreak also took two lives. As the tornado moved across Lake Hanska and Hanska Township, it claimed its first victim as an elderly man’s home collapsed on top of him, inflicting critical injuries. It was at this point that the tornado reached violent status, with F4 damage found at his farmstead
In St. Peter, 6-year-old Dustin Schneider and his parents Steve Schneider and Diana Heikes, residents of Mankato, were in St. Peter looking for a new home. Dustin was a first-grader at South Elementary and a member of the youth wrestling team.
When the tornado struck, they were on a township road just west of town. All three were sucked out of the car. Dustin died at the scene and his parents were taken to Mankato for treatment.
As the 15th anniversary of the 1998 Comfrey-St. Peter tornado approaches, we take a moment to look back at the devastation it wrought upon St. Peter and remember the impact it had on a city that has since then rebuilt.
Sounding the siren
Amy Filipek, then a communication technician at the St. Peter Police Department, set off the sirens.
At 4:59 p.m. the National Weather Service issued a Tornado Warning and following procedure, she set off the storm sirens twice. Officers and communications personal began arriving at the police department and were sent out to various parts of the city to keep an eye out for the bad weather.
At 5:14 p.m., Filipek was asked to set off the sirens again just to let people know that the warning was till in effect.
"At 5:27 p.m. an officer advised over the radio that he was two to three miles southwest of the city and that the tornado was over him," Filipek wrote in a later account of the tornado. "At this point I started setting off the sirens continually. They continued to sound until they were destroyed."
Shortly before the storm hit, people gathered at the police department and were sent to the basement for shelter. The phones started ringing and continued to ring until the electricity and phone lines went down. The station's backup generator kicked in for three minutes and then blew. The station went dark.
"The only communications we had was a portable radio to talk to officers and a mobile data terminal that is like a laptop computer that is hooked in with Mankato," Filipek said.
Unable to page the fire department or public works personnel, St. Peter reached out to Mankato instead. More than 20 different ambulance crews, several different fire departments and countless police departments began arriving in St. Peter to help search for survivors and clear the streets.
The city was divided into quadrants and fire trucks were sent out with teams to light up the dark streets. Each house was searched twice.
"The memory of the first night is hardly here anymore as the chaos and rush of events made it foggy," Filipek said. "I just know that the help arrives so fast and people were focused on what needed to get done and did it."
This account was taken from "Twist of Fate," a book of personal accounts complied by the St. Peter Kiwanis.
Doctor on call
Doctor William Shores was on call the night the tornado struck and when it was over, his first reaction was to call the hospital and volunteer his help. Minutes later, he was in his car and turning onto Broadway Avenue.
"I was so shocked when I turned the corner to go down the hill into the city," Shores said. "Wow, what a sight."
At the hospital there was emergency power. A newborn and its mother were transferred almost immediately to New Prague and one patient was transferred to Mankato, but Shores said amazingly there were more doctors at the hospital than there were patients to treat.
"There were surprisingly few injuries," Shores said. "We just couldn't believe there was all this destruction and there were so few injuries."
Following emergency plans that the hospital rarely had call to put into action, patients were treated quickly and few needed anything more than basic first aid. The hospital and ER stayed open throughout the night and the following weeks and anyone with serious injuries was transferred by ambulance to nearby hospitals until the hospital could undergo repairs.
But Shores said the primary concern at the time was how to treat the town's nursing home patients. The night of the tornado was spent transferring the patients to the nearby State Hospital, where many of them would spend the next several weeks.
"That to me was one of the most fantastic things," Shores said. "They [at the state hospital] did so much work for the nursing home patients."
Shores said while the town struggled to restore electricity and make replace the hospital's windows, he and other local doctors would visit the State Hospital and make rounds. The doctors also traveled back and forth from Mankato, checking on patients and consulting with other doctors.
This went on for weeks, Shores said, and even though a heart attack prevented him from seeing the hospital reopened and the patients transferred back, he said he was amazed by the medical staff's fortitude.
"I was so amazed at how everybody pulled together," Shores said. "There is no perfect plan, but you can be ready for emergencies. What it takes is wonderful people."
Awash with words
In the months following the tornado, more than one St. Peter resident found refuge from the disaster in the pages of one of hundreds donated books.
Doug Wolfe, head librarian at the St. Peter Public Library, said about 90 percent of the library's collection was destroyed along with the library itself. He remembers walking across town the night of the tornado, skirting live wires and wading through water to reach the library.
"We had just received brand-new books and as I walked through almost knee-deep water, I could see those books floating by me," Wolfe said.
The tornado peeled off most of the library's roof and library staff were not allowed to enter it until it was declared safe.
"We weren't allowed to go in right way and when we were allowed, it was only for a short time," Wolfe said.
While some of the books and an aquarium were later salvaged in the children’s section of the library because the roof didn’t cave in there, the rest of the library was open to the elements, including wind and rain. Hundreds of books were strewn on the floor and hundreds more were drenched by the rain. It was estimated that 25 percent of the library’s 30,000 books were lost.
While staff waited to access the library, they operated out of the North Mankato book mobile, which would park across the street from the old library and in front of City Hall.
"We sat in the book mobile and could see what was left of the library right across the street," Wolfe said.
Staff later rescued some of the library's youth collection and stored it in a large, double-wide FEMA trailer. A second trailer housed a small restroom and an office. Library staff operated out of the trailers for two years.
So many books were donated to the St. Peter library in those two years, that Wolfe started to give them away to other libraries to save space for new arrivals.
"It was very, very crowded," Wolfe said. "At least it was a library. Some people who were faithful patrons were busy rebuilding their lives afterward, but it gave them a break and a chance to get away."
When a new library was constructed the library's collection was rebuilt using insurance money and donations from the Carl and Verna Schmidt foundation. The new facility is much larger and has more space for growth.
An unexpected detour
Denise Harris was on the way home from Mankato with her husband and their 3-year-old daughter when they stopped to check on her mother-in-law.
They were watching the weather on the TV when the air began to feel heavy and thick. Then the sirens began to sound.
"My daughter was sleeping in a chair," Harris wrote in an email. "We grabbed a blanket and grabbed her [and] shut the doors. As we did the windows blew in."
In the upper half of a duplex, the family rushed down the stairs to try to get into the lower level and the basement. But no one was home and they huddled together in a hallway instead.
"The house shook and became very black," Harris said. "It stopped for a bit and it started all over again."
And then it was over. The house lost its windows, siding and several shingles, but Harris' family was safe.
"It was a day we will never forget," Harris said.
A valley away
Judy Bell grew up in St. Peter, but had just returned from a fast paced life in Southern California to take care of her mother and kick back for a while. On March 29, she was living on Jefferson Avenue.
"Growing up in St. Peter we often were in the path of tornadoes but I was always told that we were in a valley and the storm would just blow over us," Bell wrote in an email.
She heard the tornado warning siren and within minutes her neighbor was at the door to drag her down to the basement.
"He was terrified, but I still didn't believe we were in any real danger," Bell said. "In the damp basement we tried to hear the reports on his transistor radio and I commented that I didn't hear the train roar or feel the suction that I had read about. All I remember that was unusual was the thick pea green slush and debris flying by the small basement windows. Finally the all clear and we ran upstairs to see if there was any damage but found only one small hole in a storm window. And then we opened the door. It's a cliche but it looked like a war zone or an end of the world movie."
She rushed over to her mother's apartment.
"All I remember is streets blocked with uprooted trees and overturned cars and assorted wreckage that had blown in from who knows where," Bell said." And ambulances, fire trucks and police cars were everywhere making driving impossible. I abandoned the car near Veterans Park and walked the rest of the way. Mother was fine...a tough old Norwegian, and even had lights and heat so I stayed with her for two weeks until my utilities were back on."
Chair of the History Preservation Committee in 1998, Bell was later called on to assist restoration specialists who came from Minneapolis to assess damage to the historical homes and buildings.
"The Nicollet Hotel was saved from demolition at the last minute and I am so happy and proud to see it when I visit," Bell said. "I brought the Director of the [Minnesota] Historical Society to town to offer help paying for repairs to Central School but we were hit with 100 mile per hour, straight line winds and torrential rain just days after the tornado had torn off roofs, exposing the interiors to further ruin."
Bell currently lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Contracting for disaster
The aftermath of the 1998 tornado that devastated St. Peter created conditions that allowed contractors to flood into the city — some looking to exploit the situation.
“A lot of these guys come in from out of town and are looking to make a quick buck,” said St. Peter Police Sgt. Loren Jensen.
Jensen said that because of all the work that needed to be done, some contractors were able to exploit the residents of St. Peter. He said that out-of-town contractors would go door-to-door and offer their service. These contractors were often unknown to the city and had little to no credentials.
“They had no credentials with the city and were often overpriced and did poor work,” said Jensen. “They are the people who are there after any type of disaster.”
Jensen said that because there was some damage that needed to be taken care of immediately, some people elected to use these contractors to do the work, instead of waiting for the city to help. He said that some of the work had to be done hastily, because some residents had gaping holes in their roofs.
Jensen said that the work of clearing the debris was the biggest task. The city had trees and telephone poles down across the city, and a lot of the roads were blocked off. Thousands of volunteers and the National Guard came into help the city recover.
Jensen said that the city came through stronger than it was before the tornado. Because of the damage to the city’s infrastructure, telephone poles were taken down and utilities were moved underground.
“We are one of the few cities where you don’t see a lot of phone poles,” said Jensen.
Preparing for the unexpected
Roberta Olson said if she could have walked away from St. Peter after the tornado, she might have, but that she's happy to still be living in town. But, in the aftermath of the tornado, there were both helping hands and those who would take advantage of St. Peter's devastated residents.
"We had a lot of help and prayers from so many, we couldn't of done it without the help," Olson said. "When there are opportunities to help others we [could] help them too. We also had people come in and try to take advantage of us with scams and burglaries. The St. Peter Police Department really did a great job in seeing that we were protected."
Now Olson says in addition to remembering the tornado and the devastation it wrought, St. Peter residents should use it as a reminder to always be prepared.
"Everyone should have a weather radio," Olson said. "Everyone should also know where to turn off the gas, circuit breaker box and water to their home."
Reach reporter Jessica Bies at 507-931-8568 or follow her on Twitter.com @sphjessicabies