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People rebuilding town one kind act at a time

BY KD MCINTOSH | COMFREY, MN | May 18, 1998

COMFREY, MN (May 18, 1998) -- Refusing to give into what seemed overwhelming odds and

circumstances, the people of this tiny Minnesota town chose to keep going

after a March 29th tornado nearly blew them off the map.

Today, in fact, the devastated community of Comfrey is a phoenix rising

from its own rubble. But residents and community leaders say they couldn't

have gotten this far without the help of a whole lot of good people,

churches and faith-based response agencies.

First, to understand what a difference even the smallest act of assistance

has meant to Comfrey, it's important to understand the horror residents

faced when they climbed out of shelters that Sunday afternoon.

After less than a minute, the roaring and rumbling went from a deafening

assault to an abrupt silence. The storm was that quick.

"We climbed out of the basement and looked outside, to see what had

happened," recalled ...Christoffer, whose husband, Tom, is the pastoral

administrator of St. Paul's Catholic Church in Comfrey.

"Suddenly, there was screaming and shouting, and people were all running

from their houses into the streets."

She said it was difficult to look around and take in that familiar old

buildings had been turned into alien-looking, grotesque forms.

Thousands of trees were uprooted, the school was reduced to debris into the

streets and vehicles were smashed like toys brutalized by some giant's

child having a temper tantrum.

Only one of four churces was left intact -- St. Paul's.

In those first minutes, the reaction was weeping. Some residents became

hysterical.

Within the first hours, the reaction was defeat.

Mayor Linda Wallin now says residents were probably defeated the first

couple days, in fact. "But I think that's just the initial shock," she

said. The weather turned bad, with rain and snow those first days, left

residents feeling they were fighting something a war with nature they could

never win.

"Once we talked to the school, the businesses and the residents -- once the

sun came out again -- we knew we would rebuild."

The Comfrey tornado that day was one of several that cut a path across the

south- western part of the state, destroying farms and and leaving gaping

holes in small communities. Comfrey lost 75 percent of its churches, 80

percent of its residences and 100 percent of its businesses.

Never having faced such devastation before, the town's leaders had no idea

what to do first. Wallin said they defaulted to doing what seemed

inescapable -- the enormous cleanup.

"We did it with a lot of volunteers from all over the state. We had friends

and neighbors, we had strangers helping us. We got most of our help from

Lutheran Disaster Response. This is a big Lutheran area.

"After all, we had a three-point Lutheran parish here. One Lutheran church

was out of town and wasn't hit. But the two in town were destroyed."

United Methodist churches from nearby, as well as from Iowa, also sent

volunteers in to help with cleanup and provide food to volunteers and

residents.

"FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and SBA (Small Business

Administration) set up headquarters at Sleepy Eye ... and resi- dents had

to go there to sign up for help (aid)."

Wallin said town leaders filed papers with FEMA estimating debris cleanup

alone around 1.2 million dollars. Repair on the streets, which were badly

damaged from uprooted and fallen trees as well as heavy equipment used in

the cleanup, was estimated at $700,000.

No totals are available for loss of buildings, vehicles, pet and livestock

lives, utilities and trees. It might be weeks before they will be.

"First it was a matter of deciding what insurance would pay for, then what

FEMA and the state could do," Wallin said. "I contacted Region 9, in

Mankato, which includes Brown County. They have the resources for doing all

of this. We as a city don't have the know-how or the time, so we relied on

them."

The last week of April, the town also designated a planning task force to

determine the five-year future of the city. While this is the kind of

planning that generally takes a year or more, Comfrey's leaders are

determined to be finished in five weeks.

The 426 residents -- many staying out of the immediate area with relatives,

while others are boarding locally with friends and neighbors -- are helping

the task force by driving back every other week for community meetings.

One hope is to merge the city and school libraries by building one large

library within the school. The city library, which was part of the large

complex of city offices, was destroyed when the town's administration

building was hit that day.

First, however, city and school leaders have to decide if they're going to

repair the school or simply rebuild.

City Librarian Virginia Berg was effectively left without a job when the

city library fell; and she understands she won't be getting it back if the

city chooses to forfeit the municipal library. But she was also a part-time

secretary at St. Paul's Catholic Church, in fact, that can almost

be a full-time job these days, "with the church being the command center

here. It's the largest building left in town that can hold around 200

people."

Her main concern, she says, is that the church libraries are restored.

"Faith Lutheran, Salem Lutheran and the Congregational churches all had

libraries which were destroyed or damaged. St. Paul's had the least

damage."

People have begun to donate books, though most are used. "Someone brought

in a new one today, that's our first," she remembered suddenly. "I have a

box of books now just looking for a library to go into."

Wallin and Berg both concede the rebuilding doesn't mean residents aren't

suffering over the losses.. There's a great deal of stress and depression

to be dealt with, and when someone needs help they most often turn to local

clergy.

"That's how they are around here," Berg said.

The prayer circles have helped with morale, too, she added. The circles

meet faithfully to pray for specific individuals, families and the town as

a whole.

What has really kept everyone going has been the incredible outpouring of

help, according to Wallin.

Knowing so many people care enough to give of their money, resources and

time has kept residents from giving into the heartache.

Knowing they can turn to clergy, church volunteers, even faith-based relief

agencies of denominations different from their own, has shown residents

they not only can and must go on, but they don't have to do it alone.

"The clean-up and the rebuilding keeps people going, too," Berg added,

saying the work gives residents a reason to get up each morning and put one

foot in front of the other.

"God left us the water tower, so isn't that one indication He wanted us to

build back up, around it?"

Posted May 18, 1998


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