The Southern Minnesota Tornadoes of
March 29th, 1998
Stories from the...
“It’s still hard to believe the March 29th tornadoes happened 10 years ago! I was working my first job in television at KEYC-TV in Mankato. Although I had been there 3 months shy of 2 years, my experience as a TV weather anchor was minimal, and working severe weather events even more scarce. This was definitely a career changing event for me.
“I remember Bob Conzemius, my chief at the time, discussing the possibility of severe weather a few days before the event. I was still learning how to read models and figure out weather patterns, so paying attention to Bob was key. He’s VERY weather savvy, and taught me valuable information on severe weather. Anyway, Bob left for a ski trip and I went about my business that weekend, preparing for what we thought could be a few severe storms on Sunday, March 29th.
“During my broadcast on Saturday, I created a graphic showing the severe weather possibility (there was a moderate risk of severe storms over parts of Minnesota and Iowa for Sunday.) When I woke up Sunday morning, it wasn’t particularly warm. As the morning progressed though, a few of my friends commented on how humid it was getting. We slowly started to warm up, and the atmosphere had that ‘stormy feeling’ about it. I once again checked the Storm Prediction Center’s severe weather outlook and found we were still under a moderate risk, so I quickly gathered my work clothes and finished running errands. My normal Sunday shift began around 2:30, but on this day, a tornado watch brought me in around 1:30.
“KEYC had a small weekend staff, usually a reporter during the day and an engineer watching over the daily broadcast. When I arrived, our reporter was in the field shooting a story and I was lucky enough to have our weekend director at the time (Brian Wagner) in early working on a project. Our weather office was in the control room, so as storms started developing in the western part of our viewing area, I had our engineer crawl the severe storm warnings and kept Brian informed of what was happening. Once the tornado warnings began, we went to air in what is called a ‘wall-to-wall’ broadcast. We were on for over 2 hours straight, starting with 1 engineer, 1 director and 1 weather person, and ending with a station full of anchors and reporters in on their day off to cover an historic tornado outbreak in Minnesota.
“I can vividly remember talking about the first reports of damage coming in around the Comfrey area. Storms were developing all around us, and the situation seemed more intense as these storms moved toward Mankato. SEEK SHELTER IMMEDIATELY was the stern warning I wanted to convey, and did so without that fear or nervousness I had when covering storms prior to this event. I had literally grown up on air in a 2 hour span of severe weather coverage, thus the reason I consider this a career changing event.
“From here, major reports of damage started flooding into the newsroom, and staff members were running in and out of the studio handing me pieces of paper describing some of the horrible scenes that were being phoned in or heard on the scanners. I remember showing a radar image of a large hook echo as it slid into Nicollet County. Unfortunately, we didn’t have live radar, and both the Minneapolis and Sioux Falls radars overlapped on St. Peter. The hook seemed to almost disappear where the radars crossed, but it was still quite impressive as the storm moved.
“As the storms wound down, and the reporters and anchors had been dispersed to shoot video of the damage, I walked into the newsroom and found television stations from the Twin Cities had set up shop and were writing and editing video for their nightly newscasts. They had the ability to go live on the scene and shoot aerials, and seeing the extensive damage paths from the air over the next week really hit home.
“We were hoping to celebrate the move of our weekend anchor at the time, Kristi Piehl, to a new job in Sioux Falls. Unfortunately, our news was filled with destruction, sadness and very little time for Kristi to say thank you and goodbye. Kristi and I hopped in a news vehicle after the 10 PM show and drove to St. Peter. It was horrific driving into town, with debris and emergency vehicles everywhere. We were so emotionally drained from an afternoon of coverage, we both broke into tears. It was scary as we passed houses completely gone. We watched a crew search for people they thought may be trapped, while others wandered aimlessly searching for family and friends. I couldn’t sleep that night, but the couple hours my eyes did close brought back the images of large trees down and buildings destroyed.
“The next morning, I went into work early and headed out to shoot some stories of survival with one of our reporters. It had snowed enough to coat the ground that night, and the wind was howling, which compounded clean up headaches in the damaged communities. We talked with a couple who lost barns and had damage to their farmhouse. They were exhausted as well, and shared their emotions with us. We also stopped by a church that was completely leveled. The farmhouse next door had been carried into the field behind the church. In an odd instance, a kitchen sink sat in the field with dishes still sitting in it unscathed! The entire week was spent telling stories of survival, sadness, a feeling of terror as the tornadoes hit.
“I remember catching up on sleep, but I also recall shedding many tears that week. I’ll never forget the event or people I worked with covering this event, nor will I forget those who helped me tell their story afterward. As a matter of fact, when I’m visiting schools in central Iowa, one of my tornado stories is told with the help of a tornado tube a group of students in St. Peter made for me when we talked about the March 29th tornadoes. It’s a small reminder of the emotion they felt as a tornado changed their lives.”
“… I was working at the time as the chief meteorologist at KEYC television in Mankato. I had worked there for about a year and a half, and the weather had almost always been interesting during my tenure there. The day after I had started (mid October 1996), the weather turned stormy and seemed to stay that way through the entire winter of 1997, which was marked by a plethora of blizzards. There has not been a winter anything like that since. The active winter weather was nice, but I was wanting to work a severe weather event. I thought I had my chance on July 1, 1997, but the storm system only skirted the very northern edge of our viewing area, so there was not much extra work for me to do. Gradually, the season moved on without a major event unfolding in the viewing area. I would have to wait until the 1998 season for my next chance. Meanwhile, the winter of 1997-98 would not be nearly so dramatic because of the strong El Nino.
“Then came the end of March. I was scheduled to assist a National Weather Service forecaster, Bill Togstad, teach a Skywarn class at South Central Technical College in North Mankato on 3/26. This is the class where I called up Bill to see if I could help by providing any video, slides, etc. of my own, and to maybe do the class as a ‘tag team’ approach. He responded by saying he would like a slide projector and a television set up for him. …it was a nice early spring evening. It was warm and humid (rare for the end of March in Minnesota), and there were thunderstorms not far away.
“After sitting in on the Skywarn class, I checked the prognostications [computer model data] for Sunday/Monday. The pattern sure looked interesting, and if there was a setup that was absolutely ideal for producing early season tornadoes in southern Minnesota, this was it. However, I was thinking, that with limited CAPE, the tornadoes would have to be quite small and limited in number… I was a little upset that I had to miss an interesting system-- one that would probably be chaseable, but it was more important to spend time with the family on a ski trip to Beaver Creek, Colorado. I commented on the interesting pattern on the news that night before driving up to the Twin Cities to stay overnight at my sister's house before flying out in the morning.
“I distinctly remember bringing my ham radio gear with me, ready for a chase when I got home, but I had just done a major installation in my car, so I guess I had the gear with me anyway. I was able to quickly remove it from the car for theft prevention purposes, and brought it inside the house for the trip. We flew out to Colorado and had two days of very nice skiing. Unfortunately, the large amount of snow I hoped for, from the same trough that would provide the interesting weather to Minnesota, did not materialize. At the end of the second day of skiing (Sunday March 29), my sister phoned her boyfriend back home, who said that the news was reporting about six tornadoes in southern Minnesota. When she relayed this information to me, it struck me like a shock of electricity overloading my brain, combined with a particularly deep sinking feeling in my stomach. My worst fears were being realized. Indeed, the event had picked the time of my absence to strike. I wasted no time in calling back to KEYC to see what had happened. When Bryan Karrick told me the details of what had transpired, I was in absolute and total disbelief. St. Peter, a rather sizeable town, had been devastated, with most of the city ruined. What was probably worse (and I really felt picked on), was the fact that Comfrey, the home of my ‘official fan club’, had been leveled as well. This was just not fair. It was a total disaster. For any television weathercaster, there is one severe weather outbreak that clearly stands out as his or her ‘career’event, and for me, that event had just taken place during my 3-day family vacation out of state.
“Well, it was late, and the rest of the family went to bed. I did, too, but there was almost no sleep for me. I was completely beside myself. In the morning (March 30), I demanded to fly back to Minnesota, so my folks drove me back to Denver for an early flight back home. I took a Taxi back to my sister's house, grabbed my ham radio gear, then drove down to Mankato. As I approached St. Peter, there was a roadblock manned by the State Patrol. Hoping to see the damage just before dark, I approached the officer and told him I was the local KEYC meteorologist. He responded by directing me to take the detour around town. Oh, well. I got back to KEYC just in time to watch the taping of the Bandwagon show. There was nothing else I could do to help out. The reporters already had everything covered, so I just went home and got ready for the next day.
“In the morning (Tuesday March 31), I was able to caravan with the news crew to St. Peter to see the damage firsthand. Of course, the National Guard was controlling access to the town and checking everyone's identification to verify they were a resident or some sort of responder. There was an awfully long line of cars, and the wait to get into town was pretty long. About halfway up the line, as I was staring down at the pavement in front of me, still sulking about missing the event, some guy in his car next to me recognized who I was and waved to get me to get my attention. When I grudgingly looked over, he rolled down his window, smiling, and cracked, ‘You picked a [good] time to go on vacation!’ For that moment, sense of humor overcame all feelings of despair, and we both managed to laugh at our common predicament (he, a St. Peter resident whose house had probably been hit and me, the TV weather guy who missed the whole thing and was helpless to do anything about it). This encounter greatly improved my mood for the day and the rest of the week.
“For most of that week, I spent my off hours volunteering with amateur radio communications in St. Peter and in Comfrey. In St. Peter, I was assisting the Red Cross, and I worked inside in some large building in St. Peter. I don't remember where, exactly, but it may well have been on the Gustavus Adolphus campus. I didn't get to talk to a whole lot of people there. In Comfrey, things were a little different. I was assigned to a Salvation Army truck that was bringing meals around town and to rural areas outside of town. On my food truck tours, I was able to run into a few of the people who had attended my ‘fan club’ celebrations, and it really seemed to cheer them up that I had come out to help after the event. Certainly, it cheered me up as well, knowing that I could do something, even if it was to provide some sort of emotional support for the folks there.
“I've gradually gotten over missing that event, but it still stands out as one of the most remarkable events of my meteorological career, even though I was not there.
“…the Comfrey fan club was a group of people who were regular patrons of [an establishment] in town. It was sort of a community gathering spot for social activities. They were really interested in meeting me, but I'm sure they also wanted me to loosen up a bit since I regularly received comments that I looked a bit nervous on air, despite the fact that I no longer felt that way. To provide an excuse for me to visit, they came up with the idea of starting an official fan club. One day at the station, I received a letter and a list with about 90 names on it. At the time, I did not know how to respond because I sensed they were up to something. After a couple weeks, I got another letter from them, wondering why I had not responded and that they would really be interested in meeting me in person. The list had expanded to about 120 names. Well, this time, I called them right away.
“After a couple months of searching and failing to find a mutual meeting time, we finally agreed to the date of July 26, 1997 for my visit. To my amazement, when I arrived, the place was packed, and they told me it was normally pretty empty. Maybe their claims were exaggerated, but I'm sure it was a larger than normal attendance, and it seemed fill the need of providing a nice party to break up the hard summer work of farming. Since I could not stay late that evening, I felt obliged to stay longer the second time they had me out, which was February 14, 1998. …the tornado hit little more than a month later, and [the establishment] was leveled. When the reporter from KEYC came to town to cover the immediate aftermath of the event, he happened to take zoomed-in video of the… pool table, covered with debris but still standing, from which he zoomed out to reveal the flattened mess which was the former two-story building. I also happened to have pretty much the same shot, from my own video camera, as I walked in toward the pool table amidst the packed festivities on July 26. I was able to put these two shots together to create a rather dramatic video effect of the before-and-after.
“I made occasional visits to check up on the town's recovery progress whenever I had a chance, but the frequency of visits diminished as I moved farther and farther away. I've always admired the independent spirit of that place, as well as their sense of identity. It sure seemed to help them rebuild. A lot of rural communities that size would not have recovered.”
“I had just started at TWC [The Weather Channel] two months before the event so was still in getting adjusted to work, Atlanta and so forth. I grew up in Mankato and St. Peter (Mankato East HS and Mankato State Univ grad) so was keenly aware of the weather situation back home in Minnesota that fateful day. I was at work monitoring the weather events and making sure watches and warnings were correctly being submitted to the local cable systems from TWC. As the tornado warnings began in earnest over SW Minnesota hearing the familiar county names of Nobles, Murray, Cottonwood and Watonwan really perked up the interest. In fact, I recall running over to the On-Camera-Meteorologists (OCMs) to correct them on their pronunciation of Watonwan as they were not quite saying it right.
“As I was watching the radar and monitoring the continued submission of warnings to the local STARS (TWC computer at each cable system) and hearing the reports of major damage at the small communities, I began to get pretty anxious as St. Peter was directly in its path. I lived in St. Peter during my grade school years and still knew many people there. I then picked up the phone and made the call to my college buddy Jeff who was already out checking on the storm in central Nicollet County as he left from Mankato where he resided. Then the NWS issued the tornado warning for Nicollet County! It was followed up by a strongly worded Severe Statement. I recall them overriding the Tornado Warning with the Severe Statement as it detailed damage already done and St. Peter being directly in its path! That made the St. Peter cable system and scrolled across the screen on TWC in immediate fashion. It was and still is the most panicked and tense I have ever felt while working here as I knew my home area of St. Peter/Mankato was going to be severely damaged.
“Meanwhile, as I talked to Jeff I glanced at the radar and then could hear a hailstone hit his truck. I, typically softspoken, raised my voice on the phone and told Jeff, ‘to get the heck out of there now (and head southeast away from the tornado) as it is very close to you!’ That was all he needed and he bolted back toward N. Mankato/Mankato area. I continued to give up to date info to the OCMs and explaining the local geography and where things are to help them. As the storm plowed through St. Peter while I was watching the radar I could only hope and pray everyone took shelter.
“About 20 minutes later the first reports of damage begin to stream in and Jeff was giving me highlights from his radio. My heart sunk when I heard the town took a direct hit and heavy damage reported at Gustavus on the hill and along Minnesota Avenue (Highway 169) where buildings were hit. More and more reports streamed in including more information on Comfrey and Hanska who were hit very hard by the tornado.
“What a night!
“Though not mentioned a lot but the tornado hit area was stung with what I call the ‘Insult to Injury’ storm where severe weather occurs with damage and then it snows at the end of the storm system. Like it was trying to hide the evidence of its nastiness.
“About six months later I flew home to visit and made the drive through St. Peter a requirement before going on to Mankato. The thing I really noticed was how many trees were lost in the tornado. Seeing Gustavus college on the hilltop was very bizarre especially when leaves were still on the remaining trees. The number of homes and buildings damaged was astounding but one thing I noticed: despite it being an F3 tornado many homes were still somewhat in place. Very different from the housing in areas of the Southeast where I have seen the results of weaker tornadoes look much worse. Having just one fatality in this tornado was a miracle and that was due to someone caught in a vehicle. It goes to show the preparedness of the people in Minnesota with many basements, a good warning system from both the Twin Cities NWS office and the local officials, and education of the people.
“I still make it a point to visit St. Peter now that my college buddy Jeff lives there and to see how things are coming along since that fateful night of March 29, 1998.”