The Southern Minnesota Tornadoes of
March 29th, 1998
Stories from the...
Emergency Services Perspectives
During any major catastrophe, whether it is nature or human-made, the planning and response efforts of the various emergency services personnel are put to the ultimate test. Time after time, the heroic stories of law enforcement, fire department personnel, emergency management, and others in the public safety realm provide examples of their dedication and level-headedness during times of crisis. This is true even when the responders are victims themselves, facing the very same issues that other, private citizens and business owners face, an often repeated theme after the March 29th, 1998, tornadoes. They perform these heroic acts that mean so much to others while worrying about their own families and dealing with their own losses. Here are their stories.
Before the Tornadoes
Old Tornado Lore… Denise Wright, now-Nicollet County Emergency Manager, lived in Courtland with her family in March 1998. Like many in the area, Denise had heard the old wives’ tales – the ones that dismissed the idea of tornadoes occurring in the river valley. About a week prior to the tornadoes, one of which damaged her home, a local weather spotter informed her that residents of Courtland would never have to worry about tornadoes. The community, after all, sat near a “bend” in the Minnesota River. Ironically, the myth was devastatingly dispelled such a short time later.
Advance Preparation… Amy Card, then-dispatcher for the St. Peter Police Department, was on-duty on Sunday the 29 th, working a 12-hour shift from 7:00 am to 7:00 pm. Perhaps it was the “strange feeling” she had that day, or perhaps it was merely time to perform a review of the department’s “bad weather procedures”. Whatever the reason, one of Amy’s duties that day, fittingly, was to review and update these methods. She was, no doubt, more than adequately prepared for the events to occur later in her shift, even though, by her own admission, the severe weather threats of the day were initially downplayed in her own mind. It was March, in Minnesota, after all.
During the Tornadoes
Sounding the Sirens in St. Peter… With a Tornado Watch in effect since 2:00 pm, Amy’s interest in the weather situation piqued a little during the early to mid afternoon hours, although she still had doubts that tornadoes would occur. With a Tornado Warning in effect for Nicollet County, her interest in the weather situation piqued a lot around 5:00 pm. Just prior to 5:00 pm, she began monitoring the local radar data, as well as communicating with the National Weather Service in the Twin Cities and the local spotters, a dedicated group of volunteers who routinely climbed the hill on the east side of St. Peter to watch oncoming storms. Amy had complete control of siren activation for the city of St. Peter, and at 5:00 pm, more than a half hour before the tornado would tear through town, she elected to sound the 9 sirens. The initial siren blast lasted 3 minutes.
Phone calls began to pour into the police dispatch office. Residents wondered why the sirens were sounded. At 5:15 pm, with a confirmed tornado nearing the city of Nicollet, about 10 to 15 miles west-southwest of St. Peter, the sirens were set off a second time. The sirens were activated once more, at 5:20 pm, and allowed to blare continuously until the tornado severed power to them. Many residents and visitors claimed, after the fact, that this third, and final, siren activation prompted them to finally take cover.
At approximately 5:35 pm, the tornado swept through St. Peter, with Amy and many others watching safely from the dispatch center in the City Hall basement. As the twister shoved northeastward, it left St. Peter in its wake and only 2 of the 9 sirens standing.
Trying to Get Home… Chris Wersal, assistant Emergency Manager for Nicollet County, had spent the day in Red Wing with her son. The pair found themselves on the road to their home in St. Peter that afternoon, driving toward a very dark and ominous sky. Her husband, a spotter for the city of St. Peter, was watching the same sky from a much closer vantage point. Chris received a call from him as they journeyed between Le Center and St. Peter, westbound on Highway 99. He told her of the danger approaching St. Peter, advising her to “keep driving toward bright sky”. From Cleveland, the mother and son drove south on Le Sueur County Road 15, toward Madison Lake. Reaching Madison Lake and hearing sirens in town, they drove further, to Eagle Lake and finally, Mankato, where the sun had emerged fully.
When the storms passed, Chris and her son journeyed northward on Highway 169 toward St. Peter. Chris had not heard from her husband, and she was worried about him, as well as their home. The lack of southbound cars on Highway 169 was “eerie”. As they approached St. Peter, the destruction became immediately apparent – bright sky where trees used to line Minnesota Avenue, boats wrapped around light poles. Nearing their home, her son relayed that the top of their house was visible, showing that it was still there. They arrived to find the trees in the front yard downed, the windows in the home broken, and thankfully, her husband safe and sound. Chris changed her shoes and began to mentally prepare for the long days ahead.
Getting Caught in the Tornado… Dave Struckman, Le Sueur County Sheriff’s Deputy, sat at home that afternoon until he received a page, alerting all deputies to help with recovery efforts in St. Peter. He sped westward toward Le Center on Highway 99, lights flashing, sirens blaring, hitting speeds of approximately 80 mph. As he hit the main drag in Le Center, he noticed the sky and the weather conditions in the town. The sky had turned a greenish hue, and the wind was calm. As he approached the car wash, across the street from the fairgrounds, he noticed a huge “thing” coming at him. Dave quickly turned into the car wash, and the “thing” slammed into the back of his squad car. The “thing” was part of a metal pole building from the fairgrounds. He radioed to Dan Tousley, another deputy, warning him not to drive into Le Center. A few seconds later, Dave felt the tornado lift his car, bouncing it like a basketball on the ground. He watched bricks being pulled off the exterior of the car wash building. The whole ordeal lasted only 30 or 40 seconds, long enough for the experience to remain imprinted on his mind.
After the Tornadoes
Crossing the Path to Check on Family… Laine Sletta, now-Brown County Emergency Manager, was in New Ulm when word of the tornadoes reached him. His first priority was making sure that his parents and brother, who were in the tornado’s path near Hanska, were safe. Then, he was to journey to Comfrey to assist in the efforts there. As he navigated the small county roads toward his family’s farms, he found the roads difficult to navigate at times due to debris crossing the roads. He finally made his way to his family, finding them safe but their property damaged and finished his journey to Comfrey.
Arriving to a Broken Emergency Operations Center… After checking on her home and husband, Chris left her damaged home for the more heavily damaged Nicollet County Courthouse, where the county Emergency Operations Center (EOC) was located. The front of the courthouse was completely gone. She carefully made her way to the EOC and took the Emergency Operations Plan from the Commissioner’s Desk. Hank Sadler, the county Emergency Manager, was having a difficult time making it from rural areas of Le Sueur County to St. Peter, leaving Chris to begin the task of recovering from the tornadoes. She had just completed her last Emergency Management training course, and with this being her first crack at managing the aftermath of a disaster, she initially felt the weight of it, that it was all her problem.
The EOC was used as a staging area for the Search and Rescue operations, which was the immediate and most pressing concern. They used detailed maps of the area, including the city of St. Peter, and assigned specific streets to the Search and Rescue teams. The coordination helped accomplish this quickly, and by 3:00 am, every home in the city had been searched twice.
Clearing the Streets… The fact that these tornadoes occurred very early in the season, really still within the late winter season, turned out to be one fortuitous thing during the clean up efforts. Snow plows operated by the Minnesota Department of Transportation were still outfitted for snow removal. As a result, the plows were dispatched to St. Peter to clear the streets of debris. Amy and Chris both noted that this greatly assisted with the Search and Rescue operations, as it allowed volunteers and law enforcement easier and less treacherous access to heavily damaged areas.
Replacing Damaged Sirens… After Search and Rescue, one of the first priorities for the city of St. Peter was purchasing new civil defense sirens to replace those destroyed by the tornado. It was, after all, only the beginning of storm season, and the city had to be prepared for additional storms through the spring and summer months of 1998 and beyond. Amy participated in this task, which commenced the very night the tornadoes hit.
Cleaning up Le Center… After the tornadoes left Le Center in their wake, chaos reigned supreme in the city. Rumors of injuries and missing persons filtered into the sheriff’s department. A man was thought to be trapped in his destroyed mobile home, but after pulling apart the remains of his home, he was not found in the rubble. Victims were moved to shelters, including nursing home patients, who were relocated to the school in town. The damage assessment was underway. Ann Traxler, now-Le Sueur County Emergency Manager, fashioned a list of goals for the disaster relief, including such things as providing shelter to the victims, restoring utilities to the area, organizing volunteers, and providing medical services for victims and volunteers. Owing to this high level of organization, Dave recalled that it did not take long to get the situation in Le Center under control initially – perhaps only one and a half to two hours – or to get the city “in shape,” permanently.
Patrolling St. Peter… A “war zone.” Those are the words used numerous times to describe St. Peter in the immediate aftermath of the tornadoes. Initially, true organization was hard to come by, and the situation was made more challenging by the number of law enforcement agencies that donated their services. Ninety-one separate law enforcement agencies, including their neighbors in Le Sueur County, contributed to the Search and Rescue and clean up efforts in St. Peter. A large part of their job involved patrolling streets to prevent looting. Chris noted how eerie it was at night to see an absence of lights in her neighborhood, except for the lights on squad cars. One particular squad car was from Iowa. A lot of effort went to repairing nail holes in squad car tires, with so many vehicles driving over debris.
Accepting Help… Many of those who coordinated the Search and Rescue, clean up, and rebuilding efforts in St. Peter and Le Center were victims themselves, in addition to being the decision makers. Chris, as previously noted, had damage to her property in St. Peter, as did Dave in Le Sueur County. The Nicollet County Courthouse, where many of the decisions were made, was also a casualty. An initial obstacle that Chris faced was convincing the department heads in Nicollet County that the situation was “bigger than just ‘us’”; they needed help from outside sources because they were victims, too.
Losing Your Way… Communications were a definite hardship in the few days after the tornado, and often, the only way to send a message to someone in another area of St. Peter was to hand deliver it. Chris needed to communicate with someone at the armory. A representative from the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) joined her, requesting that she also take him to the Catholic Church and the Treatment Center. Having lived there for a good portion of her life, she thought she could accomplish the task with ease. Emerging from the EOC in the lower level of the county courthouse and venturing into the town, she could not get her bearings and lost her way. Devastated that she did not recognize her own city, she leaned on the FEMA representative for help, as she broke down in tears.
Consoling Others… With the front windows of the Nicollet County Courthouse destroyed, it was relatively easy for anyone to come into the courthouse and even the EOC. One morning, Chris had just retrieved her first cup of coffee when she noticed a man that had wandered into the building. She approached him, noticing his hands, scratched and bloody from sifting through debris. He looked at her and made a simple request. He asked for boxes – boxes to place the remains of his belongings into. He burst into tears, and Chris did her best to comfort him. She handed him her cup of coffee, thinking “he needs this more than I do,” and searched for boxes.
Foreshadowing… After 2 or 3 days of working at the EOC and also clearing the damage to her home, Chris had lost a few fingernails. By this time, Hank, the county Emergency Manager, had returned to St. Peter and seeing how stressed Chris appeared, suggested that she take a break, a few minutes for herself. He told her to drive to Mankato to get her nails done. She put up a fight initially, thinking how silly it was for her to be relaxing, getting a manicure, while her city lay in ruin. Tired of resisting, Chris eventually conceded and began the short trip to Mankato. Not wanting to make yet another decision, especially one so meaningless in the grand scheme of things, she decided to select the same color of nail polish that she used during her last visit. At least, she settled on this until she saw the name of the color – “We’re not in Kansas anymore Red”.
A Year Later
A ceremony was held in St. Peter a year after the tornadoes. During her speech, Chris struggled with how thank everyone that contributed to the rebuilding efforts during the previous year. “How do you make everybody understand how much gratitude we have?” She listed the numerous agencies who provided invaluable assistance in the days and weeks after the tornadoes - helping with logistics, volunteer coordination, the media, and other important tasks. The list took 10 minutes to recite. She did not, however, want to name individuals at the risk of leaving someone off the list. Instead, she said, “You will never understand until you walk in our shoes, and I hope you never understand.”
Note: A special thanks goes to Laine Sletta, Denise Wright, Chris Wersal, Amy Card, Craig Strand, Ann Traxler, Dave Struckman, and Dan Tousley for devoting their time to relive their memories of the event, most of which are unpleasant.