Tornado-torn towns on comeback trail

BY GEORGE PIPER | St. Peter, MN | March 10, 1999

Last summer, you could stand at one edge of Comfrey and look unobstructed across the tiny southern Minnesota town.

But nine months later with business and homes in various stages of construction, that is no longer possible as the community rebuilds after destructive tornadoes danced across the area last March.

The comeback of Comfrey, St. Peter, Le Center, Searles and New Ulm is due in part to ongoing recovery efforts by the Interfaith of Southern Minnesota (ISM). Those towns lay in the path of a series of devastating tornadoes that ravaged an area across 68 miles of Minnesota countryside on March 29. Two people died and scores of buildings were damaged or destroyed, including about 80 percent of Comfrey's structures.

More than 1,000 town and rural families across seven counties received some type of aid from ISM, says director Greg Nelson. Grants and cash donations raised some $600,000 while in-kind gifts such as building materials and appliances totaled $200,000. Lutheran Disaster Response of Minnesota is handling case management for the interfaith.

As the tornado's anniversary approaches, southern Minnesota residents find themselves in various stages of getting their lives back to some type of normal, notes Nelson. Some homes have been totally rebuilt while others still have blue tarps covering holes while owners continue dickering with insurance companies.

"There's still a lot of hurt out there as people realize their losses, particularly those things that cannot be replaced," says Bob Maharry, pastor of Union Presbyterian Church in St. Peter and ISM president.

ISM distributed up to $6,000 per family to pay mortgages for farmers who lost livestock during the storms. Homeowners who lacked enough insurance coverage received up to $2,500 worth of building materials for their homes. Funds covered items such as insurance premiums, medical bills and rental assistance, Nelson says.

Rebuilding has been slowed somewhat by a shortage of contractors in Southern Minnesota. Nelson said St. Peter expects construction to last throughout the summer. ISM scheduled volunteers through July to help rebuild.

Recovery appears on track, says Nelson, although additional funding couldn't hurt. "Almost everybody has an insurance shortage, and rebuilding has been expensive because contractors can command their price," he says.

Two churches damaged by the twisters -- St. Peter Evangelical Lutheran Church and Church of St. Peter Catholic Church -- plan to rebuild.

May 31 has been set to be the official end of the interfaith's recovery efforts, but the community's needs will last longer. ISM is talking with local and state organizations to help bridge the transition for those still needing assistance.

"We're putting together a packet of materials to help identify what resources are still in the area," Maharry says.

ISM also will establish a disaster recovery clearinghouse with a toll-free number and a database of service that people can use, says Nelson. The interfaith board likely to continue in some form, he adds.

Just as the physical recovery progresses in different stages, the emotional journey takes a unique path for individuals, says Maharry.

"Some are saying, 'Get on with (your lives) already,' and others are saying, 'We're not there yet,'" he says "If someone says 'Get on with it,' and you're frustrated, you have allow that person to accept fact that recovery moves at different pace for different people."

Recovery will pause for remembrance on March 27-29, when the area plans a commemorative weekend of thanksgiving and hope to recall the storm and the progress made since then.

On Saturday, March 27, storytelling and other activities are planned for survivors to talk about the tornadoes and what has happened in the past year. An ecumenical service is scheduled 4:30 p.m. Sunday, March 28, at Christ Chapel on the Gustavus Adolphus College campus in St. Peter. A dinner will follow the service.

Plans for Monday, March 29, tentatively include churches opening their sanctuaries for people wanting to spend some quiet time remembering the day or to talk with pastors. At 5:30 p.m., church bells will ring to commemoration the devastation and the recovery.

But even a new roof cannot cover the memories of what happened nearly a year ago.

"I've heard people say this storm season will be rather tense," said Maharry. "When that siren goes off, everyone will be right back to March 29."

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