Rebuilding 'community' takes time in tornado-torn towns

BY GEORGE PIPER | ST. PETER, Minn. | October 30, 1998

ST. PETER, Minn. (Oct. 30, 1998) -- When workers replaced the spire atop

Gustavus Adolphus College's Christ Chapel in St. Peter earlier this month,

someone said the event signified a complete the recovery from destructive

tornadoes that tore through southern Minnesota in March.

To the Rev. Bob Maharry, such talk couldn't be further from the truth.

Homes remain boarded up and people are still living in temporary housing as

winter approaches. Making some of the house inhabitable again may not

happen until next spring.

"Most (disaster experts) say a recovery like this takes up to five

years," said Maharry, pastor of Union Presbyterian Church in St. Peter and

president of Interfaith of Southern Minnesota (ISM). "We are recovering,

but ittakes a long way to go."

St. Peter, Comfrey, Le Center, Searles and New Ulm 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


With the last families leaving Federal Emergency Management Agency

temporary trailers this week, the big push now is to complete construction

before winter sets in, or find housing for those whose homes will not be

finished by then, said ISM Director Greg Nelson.

The sheer amount of housing construction has left the area with a

shortage of contractors, prompting the Christian Reformed World Relief

Committee to send a seven-person crew there for three weeks to work on six

unfinished projects.

Volunteers, especially those with construction skills, have dropped off

since the initial relief phase, said Nelson. A mailing to the

Minneapolis-St. Paul area generated some response, he added.

Anger and frustration are two common emotions running through the area's

residents, Maharry said. The feelings are stirred by the seemingly slow

process of getting their lives and homes back together and not having any

person on which to blame the destruction, he added.

But airing those sentiments are important, said Maharry. He tells people

that they have a right to be angry for a while, and then they can begin the

healing process.

To combat those emotions and provide some relief, ISM has conducted or

is scheduling activities and programs.

A "fun day" earlier this month featured a bike rides, games and a

cookout and helped take some 500 people's minds off the destruction for a

while, said Nelson. The organization also is planning family retreat

weekends to help people cope with personal crises that arise during

disaster recovery.

Working with different faith groups, disaster relief organizations and

the government, ISM is collectively helping people repair their lives and

meeting the needs that aren't covered by traditional disaster programs.

Maharry points to eight Union Presbyterian families who did not qualify for

Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance after the tornadoes.

The interfaith organization has been successful in getting some

businesses to provide in-kind gifts, such as insulation and appliances, to

fulfill some unmet needs.

During the upcoming holidays, ISM is working with Lutheran Disaster

Response to provide Christmas dinners and gifts to families affected by the


Churches damaged by the twisters are recovering as well. Church of St.

Peter Catholic Church plans to break ground on new land in the spring, said

Maharry, and St. Peter Evangelical Lutheran Church plans to rebuild its


In Comfrey, where some wondered if the community could rebuild itself,

ISM stepped in to write a grant to help the town re-establish a restaurant

destroyed by the tornado. The eatery served as an important hub to its

resident, noted Maharry. "It was so central to the whole sense of community

there in Comfrey," he said.

Rural areas are receiving attention as well. ISM secured grant funding

to help farmers who lost income because of the disaster to pay some

mortgage payments. Farmers can receive support for up to three months and


ISM also hopes to get people in St. Peter and Comfrey involved in

recovery through "intentional intergenerational dialogue" that involves

input from the entire community. Too many times, said Nelson, the decision

about a community's future involves decision making by one or two

"generations." The agency hired a coordinator to begin that project.

"After a disaster is a prime time to begin that kind of process in a

community because it can be replicated over and over once you have a

model," he said.

Posted Oct. 30, 1998

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