The sun rose, the morning after the tornado, on a surreal scene.
Canoes -- hundreds of canoes -- were scattered across the north end of St. Peter. Some were 30 feet off the ground, wrapped around trees. Others had been tossed around on the ground, bent and broken, for block after block, new and shiny, reflecting the first rays of daylight.
It looked like a giant had reached into the Alumacraft factory, picked up the canoes and sprinkled them all around.
That's exactly what happened.
Ten years ago today, March 30, 1998, I drove into St. Peter, devastated the night before by a rare March tornado that was one of many powerful funnels to touch down that night, killing two people, injuring dozens and causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.
Many called it Minnesota's worst weather event of the 1990s. No one who saw the damage would disagree.
Hundreds of century-old trees and homes were destroyed or damaged. The steeple on the chapel at Gustavus Adolphus College was blown down, and many of the city's other churches were severely damaged. (For a while, Catholics had to share worship space with Lutherans, proving that God works in mysterious ways.)
Eighty percent of the windows at the college, on the hilltop on the west side of St. Peter, were broken, and college parking lots looked like battlefields, with every car shattered by flying shrapnel, including two-by-fours that impaled windshields and car doors. The college, which sustained $50 million in damage, was closed for spring break and the students were gone; if they had been on campus, the toll of dead and injured would have been much higher.
Pieces of historic letters, covered in Swedish words written in the hands of some of St. Peter's first settlers, fluttered from the skies: "Best greetings," read one scrap that I picked up. The rest was missing, but I'm sure it went on to complain about the weather. Some things never change.
The power of the storm, which descended at 5:30 p.m. on a Sunday as people were sitting down to family dinners, was written in the broken roofs, splintered trees, demolished homes and, along the east side of Minnesota Avenue, the town's main drag, in the mute testimony of the street lights. They had been wrenched 180 degrees and were pointing eerily in the direction the tornado had gone: It went that-a-way.
A lot of people wondered whether St. Peter would ever be the same. For the first year, it was hard going. But a decade later, St. Peter has a population approaching 11,000, which means it has grown about 10 percent since the tornado. The college has a new campus center and is receiving record numbers of applicants. And the city that would have been the capital of Minnesota if a hard-drinking pioneer legislator hadn't stolen the bill moving the capital from St. Paul, looks as good as it ever did.
Without the trees.
On Saturday afternoon, the town a threw party to remember the tornado and thank those who helped St. Peter get back on its feet, including the Red Cross and the National Guard. The party, which organizers hoped would raise $15,000 to spruce up a playground built after the storm, was called "Treemendous Twister," and featured an inflatable Twister game, food and a brief program of speeches and invocations.
Child blown away
There was also a somber note, with the dedication of a Memory Room in the community center honoring the lives of the tornado victims, including a little boy named Dustin Schneider. In the most terrifying story to come out of the storm, 6-year-old Dustin was literally torn from the arms of his frantic parents by the power of the tornado and killed.
Saturday's observance ended with the pealing of the church bells of St. Peter at 5:30, the approximate time the tornado came down. It is amazing, really, that the bells are still in bell towers at all, let alone still ringing.
"The tornado is not the kind of thing you ever get over," says Deb Johnson, one of the organizers of the event. "St. Peter was such a beautiful, historic city, and we lost so much. We're not celebrating the bad stuff that happened, or the stuff we lost. We're celebrating all the great things that came out of the tornado -- the work that went into rebuilding, and the good things that resulted."
A good thing: Annika
One of the good things was Johnson's daughter, Annika. The fourth-grader, who will turn 10 this week, was born three days after the tornado. She was the first post-tornado baby.
"We sent out a birth announcement with a Twister board on it," said Johnson, who is married to the men's basketball coach at Gustavus, Mark Hanson. "For a while, we were calling her 'Twister Sister,' too. She doesn't remember anything about how it looked after the tornado, of course.
"The bad memories fade. And we should never forget the good things that came out of it. But for those of us who lived here, that tornado will always be part of our lives."
Nick Coleman • firstname.lastname@example.org