The Southern Minnesota Tornadoes of
March 29th, 1998
Stories from the...
In the upper left hand corner of the front page of the Tuesday, March 31, 1998, edition of the Minneapolis Star Tribune is an announcement proclaiming the University of Kentucky Wildcats as the 1997-1998 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball National Champions – a title won just a day earlier by a team coached by now-University of Minnesota Golden Gopher head coach Tubby Smith. Talk of March Madness, and perhaps the Opening Day of the Major League Baseball Season, the first pick in the upcoming National Football League draft, or the rapidly approaching Stanley Cup Playoffs, are supposed to appear on the front of a newspaper – in Minnesota – in late March. Certainly not news of communities, families, farms not 100 miles away devastated by a series of violent tornadoes only two days earlier – in Minnesota – in late March.
Except in 1998.
As that is exactly the news that shared the front page of the Tuesday, March 31, 1998, edition of the Minneapolis Star Tribune with the announcement of the Kentucky Wildcats being crowned champions of the Men’s College Basketball world. The headline read:
“This is just stuff. We’re lucky to be alive.”
Just above the headline, other excerpts of text proclaimed that 75 percent of the community of Comfrey had been destroyed, that 90 percent of the homes and businesses in St. Peter had sustained damage, and that 25 mobile homes had been lost in the city of Le Center. All of this devastation had been caused by the largest March tornado outbreak in Minnesota history.
This lone supercell was not the only storm of the day to affect portions of Minnesota and Wisconsin, although it is certainly the most memorable one from that fateful March afternoon. Additional severe thunderstorms developed over southern and central Minnesota and western Wisconsin during the early to mid afternoon hours, dropping hail as large as baseballs around Rochester and golf balls in Albert Lea and Stillwater. Tornado Warnings were hoisted at times for portions of the area, including for the Twin Cities metro, but thankfully, none were sighted.
The remainder of the afternoon and evening would not prove as fortuitous for many residents of southern Minnesota.
Around 2:00 pm, the Sioux Falls radar began showing the first signs of a developing thunderstorm. The first report of severe weather from the storm occurred near Brandon, South Dakota, located just south of Interstate 90 in far eastern South Dakota. The report was of penny size hail that occurred at 2:10 pm.
As the storm crossed into southwest Minnesota, it rapidly intensified, producing at least ping pong ball sized hail in Rock County around 3 pm. Not long after, at 3:23 pm, the first reported tornado touched down in far northwest Nobles County, 2 miles north of Lismore. Rated an F2, it destroyed buildings, trees, and pieces of farm equipment, in addition to killing two head of cattle. Over the subsequent 30 minutes, five additional short-lived tornadoes dipped from the sky over far northern Nobles County and far southern Murray County. Damage caused by these two F0’s and three F1’s included trees, farm buildings, and an overturned tractor trailer. Of these six brief touch downs, the maximum width registered 75 yards – smaller than a football field – certainly not an optimum indicator for the monsters that were to come.
The intense supercell trekked further into Murray County, and at 3:50 pm, a larger, more powerful tornado emerged from the thunderstorm’s cloud base. Touching down 7 miles east of Avoca in far eastern Murray County, it remained on the ground for the 3 remaining miles to the Cottonwood County line, entering that county 5 miles south of Westbrook. The tornado grew to a massive size – 900 yards – on its journey through Cottonwood County, demolishing everything in its path. A vehicle was tossed a hundred yards as the twister encountered its first farmstead in southwestern sections of the county. Near Jeffers, the Baptist church was heavily damaged, and remarkably, a group of people in two cars who sought refuge beneath the church’s carport escaped the tempest without significant injury. The tornado, showing no signs of lifting or weakening, then set its sights on the Cottonwood/Brown County line and the small railroad community of Comfrey. It was 4:30 pm.
The monster tornado plowed through Comfrey at F3 strength, devastating the town of 500. Seventy-five percent of the town was destroyed, including the grain elevator, the town hall, and the school. One hundred people were left homeless, as fifty homes were demolished. The town’s water tower seemed to be the only structure left standing. Amazingly, no one in Comfrey was killed, despite the fact that the community’s storm sirens were sounded only a minute before the storm roared into town.
The twister continued its devastating journey through the Brown County countryside, growing to an enormous width of a mile and a half. One hundred and thirty farms were damaged or destroyed across the county, with five hundred dairy cows perishing. As the tornado moved across Lake Hanska and Hanska Township, it claimed its first victim as an elderly man’s home collapsed on top of him, inflicting critical injuries. It was at this point that the tornado reached violent status, with F4 damage found at his farmstead. The twister exited Brown County about 3 miles east-southeast of Searles, crossing the Minnesota River into Nicollet County, grazing Cambria Township in far northwest Blue Earth County as it did so. Sixty-seven miles and eighty minutes after this tornado touched the Minnesota ground, it lifted – at 5:15 pm, four miles into Nicollet County to the east-southeast of Courtland.
The nightmare, however, was yet to be complete, as the storm quickly reorganized as it moved over the city of Nicollet. At 5:18 pm, two miles east of the city, another tornado touched down, growing into yet another mile and a half wide monster as it moved toward another crossing of the Minnesota River and the historic city of St. Peter. Just west of St. Peter, the storm claimed its second and final life, as a six-year-old boy was killed when his family’s minivan was overtaken by the tornado.
Shortly after 5:30 pm, twelve miles after it initially touched down, the tornado roared into St. Peter. First to take a hit was the campus of Gustavus Adolphus College. Fortunately, the students at the college were on Spring Break, leaving the campus almost totally vacant. Virtually no building on campus was left untouched, and seventy percent of the windows were shattered. Leaving a heavily damaged Gustavus Adolphus behind, the tornado made a slight left turn, leading survivors to claim that it traveled directly up Minnesota Avenue. Five hundred homes in St. Peter were destroyed, while seventeen hundred sustained damage. Several historic buildings in the city that almost became the state capital were left in ruin, beyond repair. A thousand trees were uprooted, leaving the once hidden Gustavus Adolphus campus visible to travelers on U.S. Highway 169, even to this day.
Leaving a bent, but not broken St. Peter behind, the eighth tornado spawned by this supercell continued into Le Sueur County, lifting at 5:45 pm, 5 miles west-northwest of Le Center. On its 18-mile path, it caused F3 damage.
It took only three minutes for the storm to produce yet another long track tornado, this one dropping 2 miles north of Cleveland. Growing to a mile in width, it raced toward the city of Le Center. Power to the storm sirens in the city was severed by damage to a transformer a matter of seconds after the sirens were initially sounded. The southern sides of Le Center took the brunt of the damage. Fifteen mobile homes in the Sunny Terrace mobile home park were totally destroyed, with another twenty-six suffering considerable damage. The county fairgrounds were also wrecked. This twister was rated an F2 on its 17-mile trek.
Four more tornadoes touched down across Rice and Dakota counties before the storm decreased in a great enough intensity to render it incapable of its prior violence. At almost 6:10 pm, a brief F1 tornado was reported 3 miles southwest of Lonsdale, a twister that was followed by a five-mile long F2 that made a direct hit on the city of Lonsdale. The Lonsdale tornado reached a maximum width of 440 yards and severely damaged four homes, six businesses, and twenty farms to the east of the city. The final two tornadoes occurred in Dakota County, an F2 near the village of Castle Rock and a brief F0 just southwest of Hastings. The final tornado lifted at 6:48 pm, three and a half hours after the dangerous thunderstorm gave birth to its first one.
In all, the thirteen tornadoes amounted to almost a quarter of a billion dollars in damage, two deaths, and a few dozen injuries. The heartache and suffering of the local populace in the wake of these storms, however, cannot be as easily calculated. Immediately after the storm, residents of the community of Comfrey were not even allowed to comb through the remains of their homes and businesses to search for heirlooms and other keepsakes. The community was completely evacuated due to natural gas and anhydrous ammonia leaks. Residents were briefly allowed back into the city on the following Monday but were quickly evacuated once again when wintry weather moved into the region. Heat, electricity, and sewer utilities were simply not present in the community, making it unsafe to be there during the ensuing cold blast. In fact, the wintry weather hampered other clean-up efforts across the tornado-ravaged landscape.
Despite the devastation and the hardships that continued due to the weather, countless stories of kindness and generosity poured from the region, as neighboring communities rallied to help those left homeless by the tornadoes – a shining light in the midst of all the darkness.