Tornado devastated St. Peter, but healed town-gown relationship

Sarah (Jellif) Davis, then a Gustavus student, pauses in the rubble.
Sarah (Jellif) Davis, a Gustavus Adolphus College student, pauses from sifting through the rubble of her off-campus apartment that was destroyed by the tornado.
Mankato Free Press 1998

On this day 20 years ago, Gustavus Adolphus English professor Phil Bryant was doing what he did many Sundays — catching up on work.

But the hot and humid weather? That was unusual.

Perched in his department's building on a hill over St. Peter, Bryant had a good view of storm clouds gathering in the distance.

"I saw bunch of clouds coming this way, there were a bunch of clouds coming that way," he said. "It all seemed like they were swirling and converging around and over the campus."

In the moment, Bryant didn't realize he was witnessing an unprecedented weather event.

Minutes later, one of the 14 tornadoes wreaking havoc on southern Minnesota that day would slam into St. Peter, with wind speeds of 175 miles per hour.

Family members search for the family cat shortly after a tornado.
Family members search for the family cat shortly after a tornado destroyed their North 4th Street home in St. Peter, March 29, 1998.
Mankato Free Press 1998

The storm took the lives of a six-year-old boy and a farmer, destroyed 200 homes in St. Peter and damaged hundreds more.

One of the twisters nearly obliterated the tiny town of Comfrey, 50 miles away. St. Peter sustained more than $120 million in property damage.

A March 30, 1998 aerial view of Comfrey, Minn.
An aerial view of Comfrey shows that none of its estimated 450 residences were untouched by the tornado that swept across town a day earlier.
Mankato Free Press 1998

But years later, residents of St. Peter said the tornado also tore down divisions within the city that had prevented different parts of the community from working together.

"This was a turning point in the town-gown relationship," said Ken Westphal, who was in charge of Gustavus's finances at the time. He oversaw the school's massive clean-up and rebuilding effort, which touched nearly every part of the campus.

Even as Gustavus was in the midst of recovering, Westphal said students went out into the community to help clean up and rebuild, working in town and on farms nearby.

Westphal said even the school's post-tornado landscaping plan for the steep hill that overlooks St. Peter reflected improved unity between the college and the town.

"The community said, 'You know what, Gustavus? We love seeing you.' So that part of the campus was planted with more miniature trees so the community could see us, and vice versa," said Westphal.

Gustavus Adolphus students walk to and from class near Christ Chapel.
Gustavus Adolphus students walk to and from class past a construction site and the Christ Chapel on Wednesday.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Westphal also points out Christ Chapel, which he calls the heart of the Gustavus community. During the tornado, he said every window in the chapel broke. Its spire fell to the ground, and the chapel cross was found nearby.

Today, that dented, bent cross hangs in the entryway of the church.

Westphal said it's a symbol of destruction, but it's also a symbol of a greater St. Peter.

Down the hill at city hall, city administrator Todd Prafke said prior to the tornado, the campus, the city and different communities within St. Peter didn't interact much.

City administrator Todd Prafke was only four months into his position.
St. Peter city administrator Todd Prafke stands in front of the Nicollet Hotel that was heavily damaged in the tornado. He was only four months into his position when the tornado hit.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

"But we soon found as the result of the tornado that we couldn't do that anymore, and we needed each other," he said.

Today, Prafke said very little is done in St. Peter without different parts of the community working together.

"So whether it's a new school or a new program in the rec department, that's one of our first thoughts: 'Who else is out there thinking like us who we can work with?" Prafke said. "That's what builds community."

MPR News Associate Digital Producer Matt Mikus contributed to this report.

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