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Picking up the Pieces in Minnesota


SOUTHWEST MINNESOTA (May 4, 1998) -- Armed with 5-gallon plastic buckets, some 6,000 volunteers combed hundreds

of acres of Minnesota farmland for debris, gathering pieces of twisted

metal as well as personal belongings.

Some helping were friends, families and neighbors of the victims. Most,

though, were strangers, often representatives of faith-based disaster

Response Organizations.

It was the first weekend after the March 29th tornadoes tore through 11

southwest Minnesota communities. Carcasses of farm animals and family pets

dotted the landscape, along with children's toys and mud-heavy cancelled


The path of destruction included rural areas near Lismore, Storden,

Jeffers, Nicollet, Hanska and LeSueur. Hardest hit were the towns of

Comfrey and St. Peter.

Comfrey, lost 80 percent of its residences and all of its businesses, as

well as three of four churches. The remaining church, St. Paul's Catholic,

became the command center for the town and for National Guard units the

first couple weeks.

St. Peter's statistics were unknown at first. Some said it had been 50

percent destroyed, businesses and residences combined. Another 30 per- cent

of both were reportedly damaged. Thousands of trees were uprooted or


Two people also died -- a six-year old boy, sucked from a van near St.

Peter, and an elderly man injured near Hanska.

Even a week later, victims were dazed after losing so much in such a short

time. Roofs were gone, walls were gone, even whole houses were gone,

leaving foundations gaping open to the sky.

Many tornado survivors could only deal with the enormity of it all by

putting one foot in front of the other, quite literally, as they worked

beside volunteers, picking up the pieces of their lives.

In the next days and weeks, strewn rubble became orderly piles of rubble,

and anything burnable was burned. House remains that couldn't be repaired

were razed, and foundations that couldn't be built upon were filled in and

bulldozed over.

Today, five communities face long-term recovery. Comfrey and St. Peter

moved quickly to apply for government grants and loans, as well as all

emergency assistance funding. Residents that could live in tem- porary

housing got trailers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

In Comfrey, every victim found housing somewhere, often with people they

knew in nearby communities. Those in St. Peter weren't quite as lucky, with

many staying on couches or floors in strangers' homes, boarded up

storefronts or church basements.

Governor Arne Carlson was quick to declare disaster areas, and insurance

companies were just as quick to issue checks.

Area churches sent what dollars as well as hands to help; and faith-based

agencies, such as the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), the

Salvation Army, Lutheran Disaster Response and the Christian Reformed World


Committee (CRWRC), sent in skilled as well as unskilled labor to help

tiring volunteers.

As of April 8, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had received

1,121 disaster applications. It is believed that nearly 3,000 applications

could be filed within the next 45 days.

To address long-term community needs, some community leaders are supporting

plans to create a new interfaith organization.

According to Ellis Wykstra, Regional Disaster Response Consultant for

Church World Service, such a group will help the underinsured get funding,

help senior citizens with reconstruction, and address other needs that

remain once the initial agencies leave town.

"Homes still need to be rebuilt, and lives need to be put back together,"

said Wykstra, who is also project director for the Christian Reformed World

Relief Committee (CRWRC).

"These things are addressed by a combined community effort, and that's what

we're trying to address right now. Many people have tarps for roofs, whose

homes--in some cases--have been condemned.

"I was talking with one family that has to do extensive rewiring -- due to

the age of their home -- before the electric company will restore service.

Those kinds of things take time."

FEMA brought in trailers for homeowners to get in from the elements while

working on clean-up and reconstruction. Agencies, churches, business and

individuals donated time repairing damaged farm machinery or even replacing

equipment so farmers could get planting done in time.

Even school kids have been dismissed from school to help pick up debris,

according to Bill Fredell, director of communications, Lutheran Social

Services of Minnesota.

"It takes an army of volunteers," he said. "People don't realize that all

the crops we'll be eating next fall are vulnerable to contamination. But

there's an attitude of, 'We've got to help our fellow man.'"

At least 1,000 volunteers spent a week in St. Peter combing the entire

community for debris, particularly on the campus of Gustavus Adolphus

College, which suffered extensive damage. Classes resumed April 20th, far

earlier than anticipated.

Even long-time differences have been set aside, said Fredell, as Lutherans

and Catholics have joined in worship. When all the Catholic churches in St.

Peter were destroyed, the Lutherans offered a Mass for them.

In Comfrey, when two Lutheran churches were heavily damaged, St. Peter's

had an ecumenical mass attended by 400 people.

"We continue on trying to help people come to grips, and get their lives

together from every standpoint," said Fredell. "It takes a lot to get over

having your house blown away, or flooded, and your life changed."

Posted May 4, 1998

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