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When the wind screamed: Looking back at the 1998 St. Peter tornado

More than 1,700 homes in this town of 10,000 sustained significant damage from the 150-mile-an-hour winds that swept in 15 years ago.

A Force Three tornado struck St. Peter on March 29, 1998.
Courtesy of Nicollet County Historical Society

May Norton remembers the sound of the wind on that March afternoon.

She was in her kitchen when she heard its pitch rising: “It kept changing to a higher note — like a quick on-off scream. Then the window beside me blew in, splintering glass everywhere. Out of some sort of instinct, I headed for cover under the kitchen table. But before I could go those few steps, I lost my balance and was thrown down on the rug, chipping a tooth on the way down. There was a loud crashing inside and out. I thought the wall would fall on me.”

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Norton was one of thousands of St. Peter residents caught up in the tornado that destroyed a huge swath of their town on March 29, 1998, 15 years ago today. More than 1,700 homes in this Southern Minnesota town of 10,000 sustained significant damage from the 150-mile-an-hour winds that swept in from the west just after 5 p.m. And while there were scores of injuries, only one death was reported — that of a 6-year-old boy who was thrown from the van in which he was riding on that Sunday afternoon.

tornado path map
Courtesy of the City of St. Peter
More than 1,700 homes in St. Peter sustained significant damage from the 150-mile-an-hour winds that swept in from the west just after 5 p.m.

Town residents, like Norton, who recorded their firsthand observations for the town’s Kiwanis Club did not remember seeing a typical funnel-shaped storm system. Instead, they recalled what many described as a huge blue-black cloud bearing down on them as it filled the sky. Rated a Force Three by the National Weather Service, the March 29 tornado also ploughed through the towns of Comfrey and LeCenter as it cuts its destructive path through Southern Minnesota.

Don and Florence Ostrom lived and worked in St. Peter, but they were in Minneapolis when the tornado hit. As they were driving home that night about 9:30, the Ostroms heard the news for the first time.

‘All the streetlights were out’

“The first report said the tornado had swept through Southern Minnesota. Then seconds later, we learned it was St. Peter,” Don recalled. “We didn’t know what to expect when we got to the edge of town. The police had cordoned off the road, but we told the officer that we lived in town, so he let us through. The streets were all covered with tree limbs and we made our way carefully in the dark. All the streetlights were out. When we got to our home, we saw that a huge elm tree had fallen on our roof. Our garage and our front porch had blown down.”

street damage photo
Courtesy of the Nicollet County Historical Society
Power lines were down and debris filled the streets the morning after the tornado.

The next day, the Ostroms and their stunned neighbors woke up to survey the damage and destruction all around them. Power lines were down and debris filled the streets in their North End neighborhood.

At the top of the hill overlooking St. Peter, Gustavus Adolphus College was particularly hard hit. The school’s Christ Chapel spire, a community landmark, had been shirred off, and more than 50 campus buildings had sustained major damage. Later, college officials would estimate the cost of repair at nearly $60 million.

“Luckily, it was spring break, so most of the students were away,” recalled Don, then a member of school’s political science faculty. “It is frightening to imagine what might have occurred if the tornado had come through in the middle of the semester.”

‘The wall had been blown away’

Todd Prafke, St. Peter’s city administrator, had been on the job for only about four months when the tornado hit. He remembers huddling in the basement with his family when the sirens went off. “Down there, we had a small window that looked out at the garage next door,” he recalled. “But it was so dark we could not see the garage wall. When the rain stopped, we discovered that the wall had been blown away.”

Then, Prafke’s pager went off, and he started off for City Hall, making his way through neighborhood streets strewn with debris. Once there, the city’s top bureaucrat triggered the city’s emergency response plan. Within two hours, city staff had surveyed every house in town to assess the damage and search for residents who might have been trapped or injured by the tornado.

For the next few weeks, Prafke remembers what seemed like a blur of 24-hour workdays as his city struggled to recover from the March 29 disaster.

While Prafke and his staff were overseeing St. Peter’s recovery, hordes of well-meaning volunteers were pouring into town to assist with the recovery.

destroyed homes
Courtesy of the Nicollet County Historical Society
Hordes of volunteers poured into town to assist with the recovery.

“Many groups from the outside came to town to offer help,” Prafke recalled. “But we needed to make sure they were working in a coordinated effort with those of us who lived here. They did know the city, and we had to help them get to know us and understand how we functioned, and we had to do that quickly. Sometimes it was such simple things — like how to do you find 4th Street when all the street signs in the neighborhood are down.”

During that first week, the Ostroms joined the spontaneous conclaves out in the middle of the street with their neighbors, who were all facing the monumental task of rebuilding their storm-damaged homes.

‘Fear and despair … but a sense of hope’

For Florence Ostrom, it was a time of mixed emotions: “There was fear and despair but there was a sense of hope and a strong sense of community. We were all in this together,” she said.

“Luckily, volunteers came from all around to help us with the cleanup. For days, debris would be piled waist high at the curb. The trucks would come by to pick up the debris. And the next day, there would be another pile, waist high.”

But not all of the newcomers to St. Peter were a welcome addition to the town. There was an influx of shady contractors who took down payments for construction projects and never showed up to do the work. Then there were some insurance adjusters who added to the stress of rebuilding.

“Some of them kept hassling our neighbors, saying that they would only pay to redo one side of the house, because that was where the damage was, even though the whole house needed new siding. Luckily, that didn’t happen to us,” Florence remembered.

Out of the rubble, spirit, life …

In early April, just days after the tornado hit, Peggy Carlson, the editor/publisher of the St. Peter Herald, would write about her town’s resilience in her weekly column. “Rising out of the muddy pile of rubble known as St. Peter is spirit, life and warm fuzzies. The spirit of St. Peter has never been as strong, alive and well as it has been in the last 12 days. We are like the little ‘weebles’ that our children play with — as community members we may wobble but we don’t fall down.”

A year later, Don Ostrom could look out of his office window and see down to the town of St. Peter, spreading out at the bottom of the hill below the Gustavus campus. “Before, you couldn’t see down to the town, large trees blocked the view, “Ostrom recalled.

aerial view
Courtesy of the City of St. Peter
“After a tornado hits, many communities like St. Peter are knocked flat.”

Now, those towering trees were all gone, demolished by demonic wind that swept through the campus on March 29. “Ironically, the tornado, even with all its destruction, brought the town and the college closer together,” Ostrom said.

As he looked back, 15 years later, Todd Prafke used sports imagery to describe the tornado’s impact.

‘We were determined to get up and rebuild’

“After a tornado hits, many communities like St. Peter are knocked flat. Some never get up off the mat, but we were determined to get up and rebuild and that happened,” he said. “In that first week, it was like a sprint as we rushed ahead with the cleanup. But then, as the months went on, it was like a long grueling marathon. But we got to the finish line, and that showed St. Peter’s resilience.

“In many ways, St. Peter, physically, is in better shape than it was before the tornado. We have new homes, and schools and churches,” Prafke said. “But we have a new understanding of the importance of cooperation, and that was probably the most important lesson the tornado taught us. Before March 29, 1998, many groups here thought they were large enough to set their own agendas and work on their own. But the tornado showed us how interdependent we are in a community like St. Peter, and how we all have to work together when a disaster strikes. Looking back now, that is probably the tornado’s most enduring legacy.”