On March 29, 1998, a tornado swept through southern Minnesota, devastating the town of St. Peter. Residents had only about ten minutes to take shelter once they heard the warning sirens just after 5:00 p.m. Propelled by 150-mile-an-hour winds, the tornado cut a mile-wide swath through the town of 10,000, causing scores of injuries and one fatality when a young boy was swept out of his family's car. In terms of its severity, the St. Peter tornado ranks with other destructive storms including those that tore through the Twin Cities metro area in 1965 and again in 1981.
St. Peter's F3 storm did not take the usual funnel shape associated with tornados at that level. Instead, it appeared as a huge black cloud bearing down on the town. Local residents later recalled what sounded like a locomotive roaring through their living rooms. Others described the screaming winds that kept reaching up to an ever-higher pitch.
As soon as the sky cleared and the winds subsided, community leaders rushed to St. Peter's City Hall. There, they triggered the city's disaster relief plan. Within hours, rescue teams had surveyed every home in town. The teams assessed immediate damage and provided first aid for their injured neighbors. Much of St. Peter had lost electrical power. The tornado uprooted thousands of trees and destroyed or damaged about 600 homes to the point where they were no longer habitable. Many residents of those homes and scores of others took shelter in the National Guard Armory.
Situated at the top of a hill overlooking St. Peter, Gustavus Adolphus College was hit hard by the worst natural disaster in the city's history. The school chapel, a community landmark, had its spire shorn off at its base. More than fifty campus buildings sustained major damage. Fortunately, most students were away on spring break. They returned to complete the spring term in makeshift classrooms, but the campus closed for the summer as nearly $60 million in repair work got underway.
In the days following the March 29 disaster, St. Peter contended with rain and snowstorms on top of continuing recovery efforts. Volunteers began pouring into town to help. They hoisted the blue tarps that covered leaky roofs all over town, and cleared debris piled up along city streets. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) opened a temporary office in St. Peter on March 31 to assess the damage. Two days later, on April 2, President Bill Clinton declared the town and all of surrounding Nicollet County a federal disaster area.
The day after the tornado struck, civic leaders convened the first of many community meetings to begin the rebuilding process. Through partnerships, organizations whose facilities were destroyed or badly damaged found temporary homes. While their facilities were being rebuilt, the parishioners from the storm- battered Catholic Church of St. Peter worshipped at First Lutheran Church.
For individuals, the process was often arduous. Many had to deal with contractors who didn't follow through on construction commitments or insurance companies that delayed needed repayments. Within a year, however, much of St. Peter was rebuilt. Homes had been repaired and replaced. New trees were growing along the streets hardest hit by the tornado, and new community buildings were under construction.
St. Peter Kiwanis Club. Twist of Fate, Personal Accounts of the March 29, 1998 St. Peter Tornado compiled by the St. Peter Kiwanis. St. Peter Minnesota: Nelson Printing, 1998.
"Tornado: A Look Back at the 1998 St. Peter Tornado." St. Peter Herald, March 28, 2013.
Just hours after an F3 tornado strikes St. Peter, rescue teams have surveyed every home in the town of 10,000, assessing damage and providing first aid. On March 30, the rebuilding process begins with the first community meeting.