ST. PETER — A generation of children has grown and become adults only knowing the new St. Peter — the St. Peter after the 1998 tornado.
They don’t know of the stained-glass windows of the Church of St. Peter beside Gorman Park or how Minnesota Square Park was shaded by big, old trees in the summer.
The Arts and Heritage Building, the courthouse and countless homes were damaged or leveled and then rebuilt.
“There is definitely a clean line before and after for me,” said Lindsey Beyer, who was 14 when 17 tornadoes wrought destruction in southern Minnesota on March 29, 1998.
Beyer remembers sitting in the basement of her home with her brothers listening to the crashing and blowing of the tornado, she said at a The Moth radio show-inspired event called “Tell Me a Story: The 20th Anniversary of the 1998 Tornado” on Thursday in St. Peter. Her brother said it would sound like a freight train, she said, but it didn’t.
Weeks later, as the city was getting back on its feet, Beyer was driving to St. Peter from a dance class in Mankato with her mom. From Highway 22, where there was once just a view of trees on the hilltop, you could see the campus of Gustavus Adolphus College.
“My mom said, ‘You know, they say it's going to be 10 years before this community rebuilds everything the way that it was, and 20 before the trees are back,’” Beyer said. “Well it’s 20 years later, I remember thinking I would be so old. But it’s 20 years later, and it still looks different to me.”
March 29, 1998
Michele Rusinko, a Gustavus professor of theater and dance, remembers calling around to set up play dates for her then 18-month-old son to take advantage of the nice weather.
That Sunday started out warm and sunny, but by mid-afternoon storms rolled in and tornado warnings were issued.
At 4 p.m. though, the storm devastated the town of Comfrey in the corner of Brown County and tore through dozens of farms. Then it hit Hanska, Cambria, Judson and Courtland. 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.
It was a storm with a strength uncommon for March. There were high temperatures, humidity and strong upper winds creating the perfect mix for a severe thunderstorm said Mark Seeley, a University of Minnesota climatologist and meteorologist.
Rusinko remembers clutching her son and singing to him as the storm raged around their home. It was loud and terrifying. Afterward, she had to go outside to survey the damage — her windows were blocked by fallen trees. There are countless stories like Rusinko’s.
More than 3,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed by the tornadoes. Every single building on Gustavus’ campus was damaged, and more than 80 percent of the windows were broken, but few students were on campus because it was spring break.
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.
"I never say to anyone, ‘I know how you feel,’ because the experience of the tornado was so different for so many people,” said Melinda Kjarum. “For some people, it was the best thing that ever happened; they got a brand new house. For other people, it was absolutely horrible. I just never say that to anyone.”
At the storytelling event, Kjarum said she remembers looking out the window of her kitchen at the storm as it headed toward her.
“I turned and I looked and it was the tornado coming,” she said. “And it was black but it was not black and it was evil. This unbelievable roiling, it was horrible, there could not be a God.”
Memories that stick
Residents of St. Peter recall specific moments from the storm and the weeks afterward. Flashes of images, conversations and the little absurdities that come when life is turned upside down by a natural disaster make them laugh or cry in turn.
Shelley Pierce was working at the St. Peter Co-op that Sunday. She packed the few shoppers and a coworker there into a freezer to keep them safe.
In the minutes after the storm had passed, she remembers a woman walking out the door of the co-op just pushing her basket of groceries all the way home.
"So like a week prior to the tornado I had just put $2,000 into my car, and Eric (the coworker) had just bought his car that summer, spent the whole summer fixing it up," Pierce said, chuckling. "We opened up the back doors and my car was on top of his car. Eric just goes 'What the f***!’ and I’m just kind of stunned. I didn't know what to do. I was like 'I’m sorry, my car is on top of your car. I would get it off if I could.'"
Later that night after the storm, Peggy Grey, owner of Mankato's Mary Lue's Yarn and Ewe, was heading back to the St. Peter Woolen Mill with her family from an event in Wisconsin when the storm hit. Her parents, Charles and Mary Lue Brinker, founded the mill and built their business over the years. When they pulled up to town on Highway 99, they had to show ID to get past police who were controlling traffic.
"One thing I do remember was that night in the dark not understanding what fully happened. I could see that there were piles of stuff on the ground, and then I realized it was yarn that was in the building at the time that was sucked out and pulled there," Grey said. "And then the next day, seeing the yarn for blocks and blocks in the trees."
The mill's upper stories were destroyed and the yarn they were storing was strewn among the trees and all over the ground. It took years for their business to fully return to normal. Grey and her sister took over the mill and yarn store in the years after the tornado. She said the storm changed their focus and helped them realize what they wanted to do with the business.
"That was a very tough time, very traumatic for my mother. I remember her saying that to see the bulldozers come and scoop all the yarn away was hard," Grey said.
Near the St. Peter Arts and Heritage Center, Michelle Kaisersatt and Jane Timmerman helped dig Ricky Hamm out from under the rubble where the west wall of the arts center had fallen. He'd been trying to get to the hospital when the wall collapsed on him. His body left an imprint on the ground, she said.
Hamm survived and recovered from his injuries.
In July, after the tornado, city employee Tuff Miller was helping grind stumps and was backing down a narrow driveway by a house to get to the backyard.
"So I'm going into this yard on the tractor, and I get about level with this open window with a bunch of kids in there looking at me," Miller said, smiling. "And one of the kids said 'Are you the cable man?' It was July, you know what they were missing."
Within a week after the storm, more than 85 percent of the debris in St. Peter was picked up. The community came together to house, feed and take care of each other. Volunteers flooded in, and President Bill Clinton declared it a national disaster, sending millions of dollars in funding.
"It was the most amazing thing to me, even as a child, was watching the community come together," Beyer said. "I remember asking my mom, 'There are so many people without houses, how come nobody's staying with us?' and she said 'I've offered to five or six families to come stay with us, but they all have five or six offers.'"
Lisa Heldke, a Gustavus philosophy professor, said the storm was one of the most profound experiences of her life, even though she was out of town on spring break when it happened and her home was not damaged.
“You are in the presence, for days, for weeks, for months, indeed for years afterward, of people who said goodbye to their loved ones,” Heldke said. “People who huddled in basements, and closets and wine cellars saying, ‘I love you, thank you for everything, goodbye.’”
When Heldke and her partner got back to town, they went to work helping their neighbors clean up and cooking for them. She said she felt the best thing she could do for her friends as they struggled with the tornado’s aftermath was to be present for them.
Ten years later, St. Peter had grown in population, had 400 new housing units, restored historic buildings, built a new community center where the Church of St. Peter once stood, and the county has a rebuilt courthouse.
City Administrator Todd Prafke moved to St. Peter in 1998. At the storytelling event, he said it has become his home over the last two decades.
He said it's amazing how the St. Peter community becomes your hometown.
"There is something that is touchable and palatable and visceral here," he said. "It's unbelievably amazing."