A town uprooted: one year later

Andrew Donohue

ST. PETER, Minn. — The trees guiding Highway 169 into downtown St. Peter tell the story of the last year.
Patches of the leafless trees have recovered, standing straight as the day before the big storm. But some trees are still bent, tangled in nests with other trees which met a similar fate.
But perhaps the most prominent trees are the ones no longer there, represented simply by stumps and empty plots of horizon.
The state of the townspeople is similar.
Some have overcome the storms, at least in the material sense, rebuilding their houses in a short time and trying to stand tall through the tough times. Others, however, haven’t made as much progress. Particle board and plastic tarp still hold together their tattered homes, acting as windows and roofs, constant reminders of the Sunday that shattered their town.
And then there are the people who couldn’t brave the tornados. Of the town’s 9,400 people, the city estimates 500 did not have the will or the money to start anew within the city limits. However, this number is much lower than the 10 to 12 percent decrease in population that city officials predicted, said Todd Prafke, St. Peter city administrator.
He said the tornado caused $18 million worth of damage to city property and $250 million to $300 million of damage to the entire community.
But the renewal process hasn’t necessarily been a negative one.
“I’m a little surprised by how quick some people rebuilt,” said Andrew Krohnberg. A St. Peter native and electrical engineering junior at the University, Krohnberg said many of the homes became nicer after the renovations, although some of his friends were displaced from their homes for five to six months.
It only took a few minutes to destroy what many decades of growth, effort and pride had carefully constructed, from the towering trees that guarded the city streets to the church that stood at the corner of Myrtle and 5th streets.
Today, more than a year has passed since tornados ravaged St. Peter, a year full of blueprints and loans, tears and doubt, insurance claims and endless trips to the downtown hardware store.
The town still shows obvious scars from the tornados that tore over the protecting hills and swooped down onto the city streets: residential yards filled only with dirt, homes without siding and dumptrucks parked on neighborhood streets.

Whatever the degree of damage and destruction, one truth is consistent in the minds of the St. Peter population: They wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without the help of volunteers.
After the tornados ripped through southern Minnesota on March 29, 1998, the region became flooded with volunteer workers for weeks. Several University organizations and students participated in clean-up and relief efforts. According to the Office of Planning and Analysis, more than 300 University students hail from the hardest hit areas — Brown, LeSueur and Nicollet counties.

Strong roots
A year ago, Leonard Wolfe sat on all that was left of the house he had lived in for 35 years — his front steps. In his hands, a doorknob trembled between his fingers.
The tornado claimed his entire home, leaving only one standing wall and a few pieces of furniture. A week after the storm, he had yet to locate his roof; his vast collection of fishing lures hung from trees around the neighborhood.
This year, the only similarity at 325 Chestnut St. is Wolfe’s red mesh Las Vegas Sands Casino baseball cap.
His children convinced him to stay and only 90 days after the tornado, Wolfe and his wife, Delores, walked through the doors of their new home. Built with insurance money on the same corner plot of land, on the same foundation as their old house, their new digs stand only six blocks from where Wolfe lived as a young boy.
For the first four weeks after the tornado, he and his wife stayed close by, at their daughter’s house. They soon moved into an 8-by-33-foot trailer, which was set in their back yard while the new house was constructed.
After hauling the rubble to their daughter’s house, they spent three weeks sifting through what was once their home for anything salvageable. They found clothing with nail holes and water damage.
Eighty-five to 90 percent of their household goods were lost, said Wolfe, who retired in June. Of his wife’s 13 pairs of shoes, they could not find one matching pair.
“I told her to donate them to clowns,” he joked.
They salvaged two pictures, one of each of their daughter’s weddings.
Among the many new items in his new house, perhaps one has the most attachment for Wolfe: a manila envelope from Salem Lutheran School in Stillwater full of letters, drawings and money.
One letter was from a girl named Angela. In beginning cursive, she wrote to tell Wolfe thank you and how sorry she was, adding, “I hope you can start over and get all new furniture.”
The letters were sent by a teacher, one of the many volunteers who helped Wolfe clear through the wreckage. Instead of sending money to a fund, the class picked one family to donate to: the Wolfes.
“These letters are sad. We sit down and read these and just break down.”
One child donated the paycheck from his paper route and two other girls held a rummage sale to raise money. Alongside the money and letters were some students’ drawings of what the Wolfe’s new house might look like.
“It’s inspiring to be honored. He said they sort of adopted us to help us,” Wolfe said.
One story Wolfe tells seems to grab his heart the most. Before the storm, a foot-tall crucifix rested next to his Bible on his dresser.
After he had been rescued from the basement of his ravaged house, Wolfe noticed something peculiar. Amid a smashed television, three collapsed walls and a waterbed which was cracked in half, stood his crucifix. Except it had been transported several feet and was now resting on his wife’s dresser, in the same upright position he had left it.
He said when the sky gets dark and the clouds rumble in the St. Peter sky, he remembers last March and still finds fear.
Is he glad he decided to stay?
“Some days.”

A gradual process
Although Steve Johnson admits the damage to his house was minimal in comparison to some of his fellow townspeople, he has yet to mend all the destruction.
Johnson, a media specialist at St. Peter High School, stands in an aisle at the local Ace Hardware store. He and a friend, Tom Applen, pick through elbow joints and piping as they prepare to fix Johnson’s bathroom. They are putting the final repairs on Johnson’s home.
“If it wasn’t for Tom, my house wouldn’t be together,” he said.
Wolfe echoed that sense of camaraderie, proving the tornado pulled the community closer.
“We didn’t have much to do with our neighbors before the tornado,” Wolfe said, pointing at the houses around him, “but now we visit them all the time.”
Not only did the storm bind the community together, but it forced the city’s school children to get to know each other a little better.
Because of extensive damage to the high school, the elementary school was forced to share its rooms with high school students for the rest of the school year.
“It was kind of like camping,” Johnson said. “The kids took it and ran with it. They made it work.”
After one month off, the high school borrowed the elementary facilities from 12:30 to 5 p.m., while elementary students claimed the building in the morning hours, said Applen, who is the high school grounds director.

The spectrum of emotion
During the course of the past year, emotions have run the gamut in St. Peter.
“Resilient, depressed, happy, excited, tired, thankful — there’s not one word for everybody or every time,” said Prafke.
From an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the thousands of volunteers to sad grumblings over lost possessions, St. Peter residents pushed the boundaries of emotional extremes.
The extremes carry over into their daily lives; a drive down the block reveals a blend of freshly-repaired and re-sided houses, which are dispersed among homes with 2-by-4 boards supporting collapsed porches and boarded up windows.
Empty lots have only the memory of old churches or playgrounds, yet a plot of land stores rows of potted trees, ready to become the newest guardians of the streets of St. Peter.
Wolfe has a new house and fishing boat, the high school has been fixed since fall and Johnson is close to finishing his repairs. Prafke said the city was given a chance to rethink how it does things.
Still, the pounding of hammers and moaning of dumptruck tires resonate through the streets. But it has only been one year.