Minnesota city reflects on tornado’s impact after 20 years

Published 8:40 am Monday, April 2, 2018

ST. PETER — St. Peter residents say that a tornado 20 years ago that heavily damaged the city also brought the community together.

The twister reached wind speeds of 175 miles per hour, killed two people, destroyed 200 homes and damaged hundreds of others, Minnesota Public Radio reported. St. Peter sustained more than $120 million in property damage.

In hindsight, residents said the devastation also brought the city and Gustavus Adolphus College together.

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The college, the city and different communities within St. Peter didn’t interact much before the tornado, said Todd Prafke, the city’s administrator.

“But we soon found as the result of the tornado that we couldn’t do that anymore, and we needed each other,” he said.

Students went into the community to help the town and nearby farms clean up and rebuild, even as their own campus was undergoing a large rebuilding effort, said Ken Westphal, who was in charge of Gustavus’s finances at the time of the tornado.

“This was a turning point in the town-gown relationship,” Westphal said.

The school’s landscaping plan after the tornado reflected the improved relationship with the city, he said.

“The community said, ‘You know what, Gustavus? We love seeing you.’ So that part of the campus was planted with more miniature trees so the community could see us, and vice versa,” said Westphal.

The community now works much closer together, Prafke said.

“So whether it’s a new school or a new program in the rec department, that’s one of our first thoughts: ‘Who else is out there thinking like us, who we can work with?” he said. “That’s what builds community.”