Todd Prafke had been city administrator of St. Peter, Minn., for four months on March 29, 1998, when the tornado struck.

As emergency sirens blasted, Prafke and his family huddled in a basement closet, watching through a small window as the yellow house next door disappeared behind rain. When the rain cleared, the yellow house’s attached garage had been torn off and deposited across the street.

Of about 2,600 homes in St. Peter, “God wiped about 200 from the face of the earth,” said Prafke, who is still the city’s administrator. “Another 400 had substantial damage, which means that they weren’t livable.” Others had suffered broken windows, damaged siding. Trees and power lines were down, debris scattered everywhere, roads blocked.

“It was surreal here in St. Peter for a number of days after the tornado,” he said.

Recovery from a natural disaster, Prafke likes to say, begins as a sprint and turns into a marathon.

The sprint took place in the days immediately after the tornado, as emergency-response teams combed the city of about 9,000, helping people out of rubble, leading them to shelter, treating injuries.

Then the marathon began. Volunteers, including Red Cross workers and church groups, poured into town: distributing supplies, hauling away debris, restoring electricity. The Jaycees raked up glass shards in the park in preparation for an upcoming community Easter egg hunt.

“Is that an emergency response priority? It isn’t,” Prafke said. “But there are some things that, after a community has been under such stress or distress, return some normalcy. That’s really important.”

A better normal

Fast forward almost 20 years. St. Peter is not back to normal — at least, not normal circa 1998.

“I don’t think the definition of normal after an event like this ever is the same,” Prafke said.

But in many ways, rebuilding made the city stronger. Old structures and neighborhoods were replaced with ones that better fit 21st-century lives.

“When all of these lines are erased from the chalkboard and you have an opportunity to draw new lines, you have to do it right,” he said. “Some of the decisions communities made 100 years ago aren’t the best things for today. …We made a decision here not just to get back to our starting point — back to zero, as some people say. We made an active decision that we’re going to be better than zero.”

Today, St. Peter has a new high school, a new community center, a new library. Residential neighborhoods have been rebuilt in affordable, neotraditional styles, with smaller houses and yards, sidewalks and front porches.

Community bonds strengthened as St. Peter’s organizations and residents worked together toward common goals.

“We’re lucky,” Prafke said. “We were probably mostly done with our marathon in four or five years.”