25 years after tornadoes tumbled southern Minnesota, residents still carry the lessons learned

St. Peter tornado, 1998
Downed trees lie strewn across the campus of Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., March 30, 1998, following a tornado which ripped through the south central Minnesota town.
Jim Mone | AP file 1998

On March 29, 1998, Lynette Nyman, just three months into her job as a St. Peter-based MPR News reporter received a quick visit from a fellow journalist. 

“Just as she was leaving, she’s like, ‘Oh, well take care. You know, have fun!’ Nyman remembers. And then Nyman responded in a way she will never forget.

“‘Oh, no nothing ever happens here.’ I literally said those words,” she said. “Nothing ever happens here. And then, just after five o’clock, everything changed.”

A woman wearing head phones smiles for the camera
Former MPR News reporter Lynette Nyman poses for a photo in the Kling Public Media Center in St. Paul on March 21.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Fourteen tornadoes swept through the region. The worst damage was in Comfrey and the Lake Hanska area. In St. Peter, an F-3 tornado destroyed more than 200 homes. It tore up trees and flattened schools and businesses. 

Two people died in the outbreak: an 85-year-old man near Lake Hanska and a six-year-old boy near St. Peter. 

Tornado bearing down
A resident of St. Peter took this photo of the tornado bearing down on the town on March 29, 1998.
Photo courtesy of Jerry Hawbaker

Nyman, who was on the ground reporting for months in the aftermath, interviewed her neighbors and friends within St. Peter while also processing what happened to her town. The radio studio where Nyman was based on the Gustavus Adolphus campus was destroyed, forcing her to create a makeshift newsroom out of her home. 

As Nyman navigated the story, she also lived with the same unknowns as her neighbors and friends who were rebuilding their lives after losing almost everything. It was hard to process, she says she had a duty to bring the stories of those affected to the listeners who learned about what happened over the air. 

She shared stories such as a woman reuniting with her love letters written by her deceased husband, a man rebuilding his home and community members picking out shards of glass from the grass so that the children could run and play, piecing together some semblance of normalcy.

Workers remove broken glass in a Gustavus Adolphus residence hall.
Workers remove broken glass in one of the Gustavus Adolphus residence halls following the tornado on March 30, 1998. Students were on spring break when the storm struck. It is speculated that injuries from the storm would have been much higher if classes had been in session.
Mankato Free Press 1998

Nyman said it shaped her later work at the American Red Cross, sharing the stories of people affected by crisis and disaster. Also learning that recovery after disaster doesn’t happen overnight.

“The challenge is to not harden the heart so that we’re keeping our own vulnerability there as well,” Nyman said. “Just so that we’re really connecting with people. And it’s not just, ‘Oh, this is just another story.’”

What happened that day, the months after and even decades later, Nyman said those lessons still stayed with her.

“At the end of the day, for me, I want to say, ‘where is their dignity?’” she said. “That’s the ultimate question. You know, is there dignity for the person I’m interviewing? Is there dignity for me, and for those affected?”

A red "on air" light sits on a shelf with other artifacts
A small “On Air” light is one of the only artifacts that remains of the former MPR News bureau location on Gustavus Adolphus College campus, pictured here on March 21.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Piecing campus and home back together

Recently Gustavus Adolphus students walked the campus between classes and ate lunch in the dining hall. Many of them possibly were unaware of what happened to their school a quarter century ago. 

Associate Vice President of Auxiliary Services Steve Kjellgren is one of the few administrators left at Gustavus who 25 years ago helped lead the campus tornado response. 

The storm blew out 80 percent of the windows on campus and uprooted more than 2,000 mature trees. The chapel steeple snapped. The clock on the clock tower stopped running, frozen at the moment when the tornado severely damaged the school. 

Kjellgren said it turned everyone’s life upside down. 

A man gestures with his arms as he talks
Gustavus Adolphus College Associate Vice President of Auxiliary Services Steve Kjellgren recalls the destruction he witnessed when the college was impacted by an F-3 tornado in 1998 as he gives a tour of the campus on March 21.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“I think we all were just so focused on what we needed to do,” Kjellgren said. “And also, for those of us who lived in town, we were working here to try to put Gustavus back together, but we’re also trying to put our own homes together, and what our children are going to do for school.”

Most students were away from campus for spring break. Though it seemed like a monumental task, somehow, Gustavus reopened for students within three weeks to finish the school year, and made sure the class of 1998 graduated on time.

For the next two decades campus emergency plans were shaped by those who took part in the tornado response. Kjellgren says they created plans to guide staff response in times of crisis and uncertainty. That readiness was apparent at Gustavus during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Don’t think it’s too much work to plan ahead,” he said. “Because you never know when you got to pull that thing off the shelf, blow the dust off and get to work.”

A spiraling sculpture stands in front of a chapel building
A spiraling sculpture, designed by Greg Mueller, marking Gustavus Adolphus College’s sesquicentennial anniversary was installed in 2012. At the time, its design drew criticism from students for its resemblance to a tornado. It is pictured here on March 21.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

From the fingerprints

Twenty-five years later, St. Peter displays the resilience of people overcoming tragedy together. From younger trees that were planted, to the rebuilt library and the framed flag that once flew over the old community center that now hangs in the new building.

In the decade after the storms, the population didn’t drop. Rather, it grew as fast as North Mankato or Mankato, some believing it was the stories and testament of small town spirit to rebuild drew others from all over.

A man with glasses sits in a city office
City Administrator Todd Prafke recounts the lessons St. Peter’s community has learned over 25 years of rebuilding following the March 1998 tornado. Prakfe, pictured in his office on March 21, was only four months into his job as City Administrator when the F-3 tornado tore through the town.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

City Administrator Todd Prafke said traces of the tornado and what happened on March 29, can still be found around town. And, he said, they will be for a long time. 

“I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing,” Prafke said. “I think it provided us with opportunity. It provided us with ways and mechanisms to make decisions, maybe better or differently than we might have otherwise.”

Prafke said community members learned to help others who may be in a similar process and not to give up hope.

The lessons from disaster are carried with them forever.

“That’s what people in St. Peter will do,” he said. “That’s, I mean, that’s just how it will be. That’s how it will be.”

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