By Don Shelby

ST. PETER, Minn. (WCCO) – Thursday marks 20 years since the deadly tornado outbreak that hit Comfrey and St. Peter.

The 14 tornadoes recorded that day was the largest number ever to hit in March. Two people were killed when the massive storm struck on March 29, 1998.

The storm also brought down thousands of trees, damaged homes, schools and businesses.

Todd Prafke lived through the disaster. He was just months into his job as city administration when most of it was destroyed.

“It’s amazing how just a few minutes makes a big difference in the trajectory of a community or how your life works out,” he said.

What happened in the hours, and days, and years after the devastating tornado might surprise some people.

Here’s one example: When hospital administrator Colleen Spike needed to find a place for 85 nursing home residents.

“We were very fortunate in that there was a building located on the St. Peter Regional Treatment Center that was vacant at the time,” she said.

The building is a state hospital complex for sexual predators.

“Let’s do it. Let’s make that happen,” Prafke recalled. “So you call the bus. You know the bus company, somebody knows the bus company. You call the bus and you get people loaded and you get them out there. That’s how it works in small towns, right?”

That’s how a community survives: by making up for what you lost, with what you have left.

Tim Kennedy remembers thousands of trees knocked down around Gustavus Adolphus College.

“There were really some stunning changes that allowed the college and the St. Peter community to think about for the future,” he said.

The majestic cedars and pines have been replaced with crab apple trees, allowing the school to be more visible — a symbol of resilience.

I witnessed firsthand people focused on what they could do, not what had been done. New homes, churches, a library and community center have replaced what was lost.

And that’s what the people of St. Peter are talking about 20 years after that devastating tornado.

It’s how they came together to rebuild — making one of the oldest cities in Minnesota better than ever.

“This community decided in lots of ways to pick itself back up,” Prafke said. “I mean, that’s Minnesota, right? That really is.”

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