March 29, 1998 was the day that changed Saint Peter. It was much too early in the season for storms, yet winds blew, sirens howled, and people fled to safety as much of what man created was destroyed in Saint Peter, Comfrey and other areas along the path of the fierce storm. For a brief few minutes after the storm passed, there was mostly silence. But it didn’t last. Soon enough the wail of a different kind of siren pierced the night as first responders from all over southern Minnesota began to arrive to help. It was an eerie sight at City Hall that night as the red, white and blue of the emergency vehicle lights bounced off the neighboring structures in the dark night sky. There were no streetlights, no security lights, only the lights from the squad cars, fire trucks and ambulances. As I entered through the Police Department doors I had little time to think of what I had just witnessed on my frantic race down to help.
I had been alone in my living room folding laundry while listening to golf or something similar on TV when the weatherman from a local TV station broke into programming. His voice was strained and he was uncharacteristically animated. A storm was on it’s way. A really big storm. What was unusual is that this particular weather person was normally very laid back and almost quiet in his demeanor and here he was begging people to take shelter. For a moment I considered going outside and moving my car which for some reason was parked out on the street, but decided against it (something I would later come to regret.) Instead I went to the front door and gawked at the oncoming storm.
I can’t really remember how long it was before the sirens began to go off, but I do remember standing at the door looking to the west as the storm clouds were rolling in. It was only when a transformer that was just a block away exploded in a huge ball of green light that I headed for the basement. My shelter was a closet in a room that has a large picture window looking out onto the back yard. The blinds were open and when the rain started, I moved to the window to see how the rain and everything else the storm was kicking up was traveling horizontally past the window. It was pretty cool.
Above my head was heard a few bumps and the occasional odd “sucking” sound, but I didn’t think much of it and it was over quickly. I should note that looking out that picture window to my back yard I couldn’t see much, but when I went upstairs and outside, trees were down everywhere including one of the very large maples in my backyard which seemed to have sheered the outside water faucet of my neighbor’s house clean off leaving a torrent of water spouting into the air. Of the four extremely old maple trees in my yard, I lost one in the back and one in the front; both leaving enormous craters that could swallow an adult.
It was the back end of my car that was really a sight. Pancaked almost all the way to the ground, whatever hit it had really done damage. What hurt the most about that is that if I had moved the car when I considered it, the already paid for vehicle would have been protected from all damage by a back yard retaining wall that is taller than the car. All that rain and debris would have gone right over the top and my car wouldn’t have had a scratch. Lesson learned on that one!
A quick glance around the neighborhood showed similar destruction up and down the street. We’d need some help, but overall, the neighborhood could be salvaged. I went back in and placed a quick call to my Mom and Dad on the other end of town intending to tell them about the “storm” damage in my neighborhood. The quick call was even quicker when after we had confirmed we were all fine, the phone lines went dead.
That’s about the same time my neighbors arrived home to tell me that “downtown was gone”. Surely that couldn’t be true?! City employees know that we are expected to respond when there is an emergency and I told the neighbors I had to get downtown. Just as they were offering me a ride, my brother showed up. He and I got about half-way before the roads were blocked and I ran the rest of the way.
All of that transpired in twenty simple minutes. Twenty minutes during which over a dozen emergency departments responded to Saint Peter. Twenty minutes during which the lives of so many were changed and the life of an innocent little boy was ended. Twenty minutes when a peaceful Sunday afternoon became a day none of us will ever forget.
Dustin Schneider died. An elderly gentleman in Comfrey died. Dustin was so young and full of a life of promise, but his parents and extended family had to try and grieve at the same time everyone else in town was grieving their own losses. I heard the funeral was packed. I wasn’t there. Not because I didn’t want to go, but with everything that was going on, I don’t remember if I ever even knew when the funeral was. But I mourned then and still do for Dustin and his parents.
Most City employees will go an entire career without really facing this type of emergency. Yet if my career with the City had been that way I would have never known how extraordinary people can be when faced with such adversity. Within an hour most City employees had already come to work. Some who were on spring vacation caught the first plane home. It was truly awe inspiring to see how we all pitched in. We worked alongside volunteers from our own families and City employees from other cities in Minnesota. Their help was invaluable as we could ask them to do things like answering phones and making copies and other easy tasks that we didn’t have time for in our 18 hour days.
And yet, most of my co-workers were also victims of the storm. We were struggling with what we lost and the time consuming need to rebuild our own homes. There was no time for crying so we took solace where we could find it as we slogged through those never ending days of recovery. But like the people of our community who discovered City employees were on the job helping them already, we too received help in the form of thousands of cards and letters from strangers offering prayers and words of encouragement – strangers who had been through similar disasters and others who were just touched by the videos of devastation they saw on their news each night.
You may have noticed by now that I have used the word “storm” over and over again. Why not call it was it was – a tornado? You see, it wasn’t until days later, when the Governor had come down to tour Saint Peter and we were all on a bus driving around the community, that I finally learned it wasn’t just a storm. Without power, too busy to listen to any news source, I had been clueless that the “storm” was actually an F3-F4 tornado that carved a swath through three-quarters of my community!
The storm that I watched coming towards my house that Sunday was well over a mile wide – so wide in fact that it didn’t even look like a tornado by the time it crested the bluff to the west of me. It was on that bus with the Governor and his entourage, the Mayor and City Administrator and other’s that I finally figured out that I and the rest of my family had survived a massive tornado!
500 homes destroyed (several over a century old), 1,700 houses damaged, 17,000 trees lost, every window on the campus of Gustavus Adolphus College destroyed. The tornado was spawned by a single supercell that covered over 150 miles. The tornado hit Saint Peter at 5:18 p.m. and in total, was on the ground for 67 miles flinging debris up to 130 miles away. It was massive and destructive and a force of nature to be sure. And then, just because Mother Nature holds all the power, it snowed on us the next day. Heavy wet snow that made cleanup just that much harder.
As silly as it may seem, I choose to believe that not knowing what was over me as I sat watching out that basement window was a higher power protecting me from the shock of it all. Not knowing allowed me to go to work to help the people in my community. Not knowing allowed me to do what I had to do in a time when I was needed. Not knowing allowed me the time I needed to process what I saw on the bus that day – the near total devastation in many sections of town; the harried and weary faces of the people in my community as they sorted through the rubble; the tattered flags that had been put up in so many places to let people know that we might be down, but we were still Americans and we would recover.
In the days, weeks and months that followed, the reality of it all certainly took a toll on me and everyone else who lived through the tornado. There is almost unimaginable stress that hits when you have to rebuild your life. Tempers are short, tears fall easily, and yet life goes on. For those who escaped unharmed, there is often survivor’s guilt. Why did my neighbor lose their house and mine still stands?
Through it all we learned many lessons. Accepting help when it is given, especially when given from those who escaped untouched comes to mind. But the most important lesson comes back to little Dustin Schneider. Life is not guaranteed. Tell those you love how much they mean to you whenever and as often as you can. Let life’s petty irritations go because every moment in this world is more precious than you know.
Finally, remember that when a tornado or flood or fire happens, complete strangers will be there for you. In this life, there are always people who will reach out a hand to help even if you don’t ask. It’s the best thing about the life we lead.
And with that, on this anniversary of the day a tornado changed everything, be well my friends…