Tornado aftershock reverberates north to University students

Andrew Donohue

ST.PETER, Minn. The TV vans have left St. Peter. The 6 o’clock news is back to the same old footage and the viewers are no longer forced to see the horrific live shots of tornado damage in what was once a quaint little town in southern Minnesota.
But the vans were not able to take away the damage with them as they turned on to Highway 169 and headed out of town.
Volunteer workers and residents still remain, rakes shuffling and wheelbarrows filling beneath the shade of one of the few trees that braved the storm. The debris contains chunks of people’s lives: pieces of shingles that were supposed to protect them from harsh weather; branches and trunks of the trees that once towered above the city streets; the swingset that they played on as a kid.
While the initial sweep of community shock and media coverage has lifted its veil from St. Peter, the scenic town is now staring down the barrel of months of rebuilding their town, their college and their lives.
But the townspeople are not alone. The highways and streets leading into town are jammed with buses and vans carrying thousands of eager volunteers and displaying license plates from as far away as New Mexico. In addition, relief efforts collecting anything from personal hygiene items to rakes and shovels have been coordinated around the state.
The aftershock of the tornadoes that on March 29 ravaged Brown, LeSueur and Nicollet counties, which will receive federal disaster aid, has also hit the Twin Cities campus, changing the lives of many student residents and volunteers alike. In fact, Ronald Matross, senior analyst for the Office of Planning and Analysis said about 250 University students hail from the tri-county area.

Returning home
Electrical engineering sophomore Andrew Krohnberg returned to St. Peter on Friday for the first time since nature tore through his hometown a week earlier.
Over the years, Krohnberg has used the steeple of the Christ Chapel as a landmark for his voyage home. This time, there was no steeple.
“It was just sad,” Krohnberg said.
As he came back into town, Krohnberg first stopped by his friend’s house to survey its damage and then turned to go down the hill that overlooks the entire town. Instead of the normal black and gray roofs, all he saw was blue tarps, trying to mend the damage of the winds.
“Knowing what was there before, it was just crazy,” Krohnberg said. “Once I saw all the blue tarps, I thought this is awful.'”
Krohnberg first heard of the tornadoes when he stepped off of a plane from Acapulco and out of spring break. Upon setting foot inside Twin Cities International Airport, he received some unwanted baggage. His hometown of St. Peter had been trampled by a tornado.
Because tornadoes are common in the unpopulated rural land surrounding his hometown, Krohnberg originally thought nothing much of the rumored twisters.
“Once I heard that it hit right downtown, I got really scared and worried for my family,” Krohnberg said.
The shock then turned to waiting. Unable to contact his family to see how they were doing and what the damage was because of downed phone lines, Krohnberg was forced to speculate from the time he heard the news, 6:30 a.m., until 9 p.m. At that time, his family was able to get a hold of him and let him know they were all right.
Krohnberg described his parents’ initial reaction as anger, but said emotions switched to grateful once they had a chance to walk around town and catch a glimpse of the damage to everybody else.
The Krohnberg house received minimal damage compared with that of some of its neighbors. After a twister had wreaked its havoc, the Krohnbergs were left with a loss of a few shutters, some shingles and a small hole in the siding.
With homes only a few blocks away split open like dollhouses, others without any sign of a roof and still others left only with a basement and some floorboards, the family escaped disaster.
“I’d say it wasn’t real bad compared to some of my friends,” Krohnberg said.
He said that right now his friends and their families are just trying to rebuild. They are renting houses and taking pictures of everything they own for insurance purposes.
As night falls on St. Peter, the dark cannot tarp the town. Floodlights, police and national guardsmen line the streets that not very long ago were lined with hundred-year-old trees. “It looks like a police state,” Krohnberg said.

A thumbs-up for volunteers
Organizations around the University coordinated volunteer efforts in an attempt to get students to the disaster sights. Volunteer numbers skyrocketed for the weekend following the storms, as many would-be helpers were turned away because volunteer lists were already packed.
Volunteers from the Newman Center worked most of Saturday clearing out wreckage from what was a dentist’s office only a week ago.
“This has helped give me the perspective that it could happen to anybody,” said Angela Carlson, a freshman marketing major, who displayed a heavily wrapped thumb, which she banged up during the cleanup efforts.
Krohnberg said that because of the volunteers, the town’s morale has gradually grown.
“Right away, everybody was feeling down,” he said. “With all the help, they’re feeling good. The people are ecstatic with the volunteers; I have heard nothing but good things.”
“It’s great because the volunteers have done most of the work,” he said.
Many St. Peter residents displayed their affection toward volunteers by spray-painting thank you messages on the outsides of their houses. While touching messages like, “The trees may be gone but we still have our roots,” show the strength and will of locals, a leaning telephone pole, reading, “We will win this game of Twister,” shows they are also light-hearted amid a difficult time.
The volunteers remained humble in their quest to salvage the town.
“Coming here, I get a feeling we did something,” said Kelly McDonnell, a graduate student in deaf education and cleanup volunteer.
Tim Stobola, a senior chemistry major, said that one reason he came to help was because he knew people at Gustavus Adolphus College, which is in the heart of St. Peter. The school is currently closed, as damage to its buildings and residence halls was tremendous. School officials have set an ambitious return date of April 14th.
Ted Rolf, who, like most of the school’s students was on spring break at the time of the storms, said the rest of the year will be tough, but everybody will be ready by the fall.
“My initial reaction was, Wow, the trees are gone,'” said Rolf, a freshman business major and member of the football team. “That blew me away.”

Starting from scratch
As volunteers sift through rubbage and townspeople contemplate the road ahead of them, lifelong St. Peter resident Leonard Wolfe sits on the top of three steps that lead up to nothing. He is staring at a doorknob that shuffles in his trembling fingers.
The doorknob, along with some sub-flooring and a basement, are the only remnants of his 35-year-old house.
He looks out at his yard, which is now just dirt, and talks about the trees that have been replaced by large tire tracks. He then shifts conversation to the night his walls came tumbling down.
He and his wife, Delores, were keeping the television and radio on to monitor the track of the storm when the emergency siren rang through the town.
“I opened up the door to hear the sirens and I could see the sky getting dark, then black,” Wolfe said.
Gradually, he saw a tree in the front yard start to bend, and as its angle increased, Wolfe grabbed his wife and sought refuge in his basement. As the two huddled under a table, the twister screamed overhead.
“The house started shaking, we heard a roar and then it was over just like that, in only two or three minutes,” Wolfe said.
After the winds had settled, a ray of light shown on the elderly couple.
“My wife asked, What’s that light?’ I said, ‘Honey, we don’t have a house anymore,'” Wolfe said. “Then we both sat there crying.”
Stranded among the aftermath of collapsed walls and tattered memories, the two were forced to wait 15 minutes until neighbors were able to rescue them.
After they had been pulled from the basement, the Wolfes stared at what was left standing on their property: one inner wall and three pieces of furniture.
“We still don’t know where our roof went,” Wolfe said.
Wolfe said as soon as he turned around to thank the helpers, they were gone to the aid of someone else.
The good-natured spirit of rescuers and volunteers alike have kept the town on its feet, he said.
Wolfe and a neighbor began early Saturday morning clearing out the walls and framework that held up his one-story house, knowing the job would take them a couple of days.
Their days of work were instantly transformed into a morning of cleanup and hope when 19 volunteers came walking down the street looking for someone to help.
“Help means a world of difference,” said Wolfe. “There are people out here that like to help and they don’t ask how or why.”
By the afternoon, Wolfe’s property was cleaned up and ready for the rebuilding process. With his insurance policy in hand and blueprint for a new house drawn up, Wolfe was ready to play the hand that nature had dealt him.
Across the street stands an 87-year-old woman who has lived her entire life in St. Peter. She wished to remain nameless for personal reasons. Although her house, in which she has lived for several decades, survived the storm relatively unscathed, she is not without loss.
Shakily standing in the dirt in which her father stood in 1903, she remembers when he planted the row of trees that paralleled Cleveland Street. All but a few of those trees that guarded the town for close to a century are gone.

U can help
For those who could not make it down to the disaster areas for cleanup efforts over the weekend, the University has launched a collection drive for the victims.
Because of the extensive damage and loss, the University is collecting a number of items. Tools, such as rakes, shovels and pales are in desperate need in the damaged areas, as well as personal hygiene items, cleaning supplies, children’s toys and supplies, nonperishable food items and money.
Amelious Whyte, assistant to the vice president for student development and athletics, said the University has directed away many volunteers from disaster sights because news reports had indicated such high numbers and so many other groups were organizing such efforts.
“We thought a collection would be one of the best ways the University community could help,” Whyte said.
Drop-off boxes for these items will be located all around campus Wednesday and Thursday in parking lots, residence halls, Coffman Union, the St. Paul Student Center and University Bookstores. For monetary gifts, checks can be taken or mailed to the Office of the Bursar.

El Ni[0241]o’s fault?
Now that El Ni[0241]o has become a household name, the obvious question of the weather phenomenon’s relation to the tornadoes has arisen.
Bruce Watson, a consulting meteorologist in the Twin Cities, believes that El Ni[0241]o had a direct affect on the tornadoes that ravaged southern Minnesota.
Watson said because of the unseasonable warmth that El Ni{0241]o brought with it during the early months of the year, water temperatures are about seven degrees warmer than average.
The higher temperature in bodies of water around the state means more energy is released into the atmosphere. This energy, in turn, must be dissipated by an increase in wind.
“The more energy you have to get rid of, the more storms there will be,” Watson said.
With the warmer water temperature setting the stage for a possible tornado-laden summer, Watson is still somewhat optimistic.
“I expect more storminess than usual, but I don’t think it will blow us away,” he said.
Watson also said that by this time of the year, storm centers have moved from the southern part of the state to either directly above the Twin Cities area or to the north.
— Staff reporter Nick Doty contributed to this report.