Rebuilding continues in MN communities

BY CHRISTOPHER KETCHAM | ST PETER, MN | July 2, 1999


ST PETER, MN (July 2, 1999) -- When the people of St. Peter commemorated

the anniversary of the 1998 tornadoes that nearly swept it off the map

earlier this year, the event had a two-fold meaning.

The March event "was a closure, a saying of 'Yes, we've made it through!'"

says the Rev. Bob Maharry, president of Interfaith of Southern Minnesota, a

faith-based relief group organized following the March 1998 storm. "And it

was a call to keep on working."

While the key work is now largely complete --- the majority of families

have returned home, and farms and storefronts are back in business --- St.

Peter and nearby affected communities like Comfrey, Hanska and Le Center

have months, if not years, of labors -- large and small -- ahead. Last

year's tornadoes were among the most destructive in state history.

"We've got 20 families just starting to rebuild their homes," says Shelley

Hintz, outreach coordinator for Lutheran Disaster Response (LDR), which is

overseeing the continuing volunteer relief effort. "By August, they'll have

roofs and a door that opens." Some 60 to 70 St. Peter families still have

unmet needs, says Hintz -- everything from checking why their windows stick

to reorganizing bad debt to rehabilitating uninsured property.

"We knew the needs of each family," says Hintz. "We did case management for

each one, verified what they got from insurance, and insured they took

advantage of all the programs they qualified for. We were able then to get

interfaith grant money to help them with building materials."

"We've also done odd things like helping people pay for electrical work or

pay for leaning trees to be taken down," says Hintz. "We're doing very

small and sundry items --- like helping an elderly person check why their

bolt-lock on the door doesn't work, or Sheetrocking, dry-walling, taping

--- as well the large things."

Fueling the effort are volunteers from across the nation. Since the

beginning of June, more than 50 volunteers have arrived, with 100 more

scheduled for July and August, according to Hintz.

The volunteers have come from as far away as Texas, Washington and Florida.

"The volunteers have been able to do the difficult projects for us," says

Hintz, projects like rebuilding Candace Heck's slumping roof.

Heck, paralyzed from the waist down and wheelchair bound, watched last

year's twister bow in the roof of her 150-year-old Main St. home. The storm

left the rafters bent like the legs of a rocking chair. But Heck's

insurance company refused to pay for the damage.

A gang of 10 Nebraskans rebuilt the support beams, rafters, and sheeting,

and then reroofed the whole house in five days. "They worked mightily,"

says Hintz. "They came at six in the morning to work before the heat of the

day."

Asked what she would have done with the roof if volunteers hadn't shown up,

Heck said, "I don't know what we would have done. Probably nothing."

"Some people have gotten to the point where the outside of their house

looks pretty good, they've moved back in, and now they're taking a

breather," says Hintz. "Having a volunteer group come in to jumpstart them

is really a plus. It motivates them to keep going with the work."

Scott Southwick needed the help. He purchased his Front St. Victorian home

along the Minnesota River about a year before the storm. He had rented out

mobile homes on the property behind his house, but the homes were destroyed

in the tornadoes, and new city ordinances prevented him bringing back the

rentals.

"So he lost that rental income, and he hasn't been able to rent the

upstairs apartment because it too was destroyed," says Hintz, who brought

in volunteers to help Southwick design a new garage, porch and second floor

apartment.

"That moved him along a month ahead on the progress he would have made

alone," says Hintz.

Elderly people like Fern and Chester Gustavson have especially benefited

from the willing hands -- literally. The couple, who celebrated their 56th

wedding anniversary last week, lost the trees surrounding their home and

dotting their farm. They've planted 600 new trees.

But because they had to till the ground to plant the new trees, they

unearthed loads of fresh rock. So volunteers did rock-picking, "a very

backbreaking, boring job," says Hintz.

On the rocky road of disaster recovery, there is also psychological damage

that's more difficult to repair than homes or farms.

"Many of the needs now are in mental health," says Maharry, the ISM

president. "You see increased incidents of abuse, spousal abuse,

depression."

Working with people who have been traumatized by the event, says Maharry,

means that "every time you turn on the television and the forecaster

mentions a potential storm, you're right back there on March 29."

Sunday, March 29 started sunny, with temperatures in the mid-60s, but by

mid-afternoon the National Weather Service was warning residents of severe

storms sweeping up from the southwest.

The storm, rated an F-4 on a scale that measures F-5 as the strongest

twister, thrashed Comfrey, rural Hanska, the Cambria and Judson areas, St.

Peter and Le Center, cutting a three-mile-wide, 90-mile-long swath of

destruction. Property damage was apocalyptic: 450 homes were destroyed, and

in rural areas, 876 farm buildings were demolished and hundreds more

damaged.

Of the 2,500 homes in St. Peter, 2,000 received at least some damage, and

total damage to the city was about $300 million, according to building

permit estimates. St. Peter's Gustavus Adolphus College alone suffered $63

million in insurable damage, according to Hintz. The city had to bulldoze

110 single-family structures, 44 rental properties and 23 commercial

buildings. While there was over $65 million in reconstruction by the end of

1998, according to Hintz, some 25 to 30 lots across town remain empty.

St. Peter Community Center, the locus of community activity, was completely

demolished. "It was heavily used," says Maharry, who says that the loss of

the center was a heavy blow to St. Peter. "There were meeting rooms, a

daycare center, and the city's recreation department was there. It'll be

another year before another center will be even started."

Reconstruction on St. Peter's damaged and demolished churches is moving

faster. St. Peter Evangelical Church, bulldozed after the storm, is "going

up as we speak," says Hintz. Workers are currently putting up the sidewalls

and cement block work. Groundbreaking for reconstruction of St. Peter

Catholic Church, also bulldozed, began just last month. Planned additions

include a new parish office and new school.

In Comfrey, the work moves apace. Reconstruction of the elementary and high

school portions of Comfrey Public School are to be completed by summer's

end, and kids will be back in their old classrooms by September, according

to Linda Friesen, the Comfrey City Clerk.

Comfrey's Parkview and Broadstreet Apartments were so badly damaged they

had to be demolished. The Comfrey Development Corporation spearheaded the

rebuilding, and both complexes, each containing 10 one- and two-bedroom

apartments, are due to open by July 1.

But the new church stands to be the biggest project.

The storm destroyed both Comfrey's churches, Salem Lutheran and Faith

Lutheran, though they stood at opposite ends of town. "It was interesting:

the tornado had that strange of a path," notes the Rev. Patricia Baglien.

"One church was on the east end, the other on the west end."

Both congregations, who shared Baglien as pastor, united as one new church,

New Hope Lutheran, last February. "Now we are the new congregation, looking

forward to having a new building down the way," Baglien said.

Posted July 2, 1999


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