Gustavus reflects back on the 1998 tornado and how far we have come since the disaster
Ten years ago, students packed up their things and left for Spring Break. Little did they know, the Gustavus they left wouldn’t be the one they would return to weeks later.
An F-3 tornado, 1.5 miles wide, tore through the campus on Sunday, March 29, 1998, dismantling nearly everything in sight. Damages were estimated at $50 million. Over 2,000 trees were lost and personal property and campus buildings were ruined. The tornado was considered by many to be one of the worst natural disasters to strike Minnesota. Gustavus and the St. Peter community are preparing to commemorate the event and reflect on how the community has changed since that day. “People’s lives were turned upside down in an instant,” said Director of Drug and Alcohol Education Judy Douglas. The devastation, however, could have been much worse.
It was Director of Safety and Security Ray Thrower’s first month on the job when the tornado struck and his head resident apartment in Sohre was torn to pieces…as was his truck. “By the grace of God there wasn’t a single person actually hurt on campus. Had we been in full session, with everybody here, there probably would have been some fatalities,” said Thrower.
“There wasn’t a building on campus that wasn’t damaged in some shape or form,” said Director of the Physical Plant Warren Wunderlich.
Johnson Hall, a small dormitory that housed fifty students and the Crossroads Program, was damaged beyond repair. The Swedish House, once one of the most recognizable buildings on campus with its bright yellow exterior, was nearly demolished by the storm. Both of these programs are now housed in the Carlson International Center.
The Chapel spire snapped just above the roof line, and many of the chapel windows broke, as did most of the windows on campus. Almost all of the athletic fields and facilities were unsafe to use, as were the Nobel laboratories.
After the tornado, and with the campus in disarray, many believed the college would have to shut down for the remainder of the year, perhaps even indefinitely. “One T.V. station broadcasted that we would never open,” said former Director of Admissions Owen Sammelson.
Not only was there a concern about finishing the current school year, there were also worries about keeping students for the next year’s incoming class. What happened in the days and months following the tornado perhaps saved the college as a whole. “An influx of people came in and just started cleaning things up. The adrenaline surge on campus, from the president on down, was just incredible. It was this huge thing that we’re going to restore this college to what it was and do it as fast as we can,” said Sammelson.
Immediately following the tornado, President Axel Steuer declared the campus would reopen in two weeks. “Many outside people didn’t believe him, but he said that to confront those rumors and we ended up opening in three [weeks],” said Wunderlich. Recovery efforts started immediately and buildings were patched up as best as possible, while some buildings were made into makeshift homes for the college offices with irreparable damages.
“The Lund Center forum was the post office and the dining hall⎯[Dining Services] brought in tractor trailers with kitchens for cooking,” said Thrower. “The Nobel parking lot had FEMA-like classroom villages set up. It was just incredible to see, but we wanted to give students the chance to be part of the recovery effort and to graduate. Some schools would have said we’re going to close the school for the rest of the year. I think we took the right step,” said Thrower.
Part of the effort also included a $3,000 check to every graduating and returning student. “The theory was students lost part of their experience here, and the money was intended as a kind of rebate and incentive to come back,” said Wunderlich. The Registrar’s office worked to turn the remaining seven weeks of class into five weeks by shortening classes and pushing them into the evening. Gustavus hardly lost any of its students and was able to finish out the school year.
The college was on its way back up, but it would be all for naught if they couldn’t recruit a decent sized incoming class. The Office of Admissions worked hard to ensure that those students who were considering the college before the tornado stayed interested in the college afterwards. “I had been working all that Sunday afternoon reading scholarship applications and it was a very hot and humid day, so I set the applications on my desk and went home…I never saw anything that was on my desk again,” said Sammelson.
The Admissions Office was destroyed and the 20 or so applications lying on the desks of admissions counselors were lost. Luckily, the rest of the applications were safe in steel file cabinets. The Admissions Office temporarily moved to the Olin phone room, and the names of the 20 missing applicants were eventually found. A letter was sent to all 2,000 applicants in just three days and every applicant received a personal phone call within ten days.
“We were scared to death [about] the reaction we would get, but what we got [were] people asking ‘How can we help?’” said Sammelson. “I learned from my colleagues that students chose to come to Gustavus because they had evidence of the community here and felt a part of it already,” said Sammelson.
Joy Reese, a high school senior at the time and now a Gustavus admissions counselor, decided to come to Gustavus despite the tornado damage. “I came up to visit here and said there’s no way I’m going to school here, but through contact with the Admissions Office, I decided it would be a unique experience to be the first class to come after the disaster,” said Reese. The following year, Reese recalls the cramped quarters many of the college offices had to deal with. “Lund Center had just three treadmills shoved on the third floor, Health Services was crammed into the basement of Gibbs and I awoke to dump trucks backing up at six every morning,” said Reese. She said it was the community that made the difference, though.
Reese was one of 735 first-year students that year: the largest incoming class in Gustavus’ history. By her sophomore year the new campus center was built and the construction started to slowly go away. “People always talked about the tornado in my time here—pre-tornado and post-tornado, and now most students don’t even know about it,” said Reese.
Now, ten years after the St. Peter tornado, Gustavus and the City of St. Peter are planning events to remember the destruction of that day and the outpouring of public support in the aftermath. Gustavus will be holding a commemoration at Daily Chapel on Monday, March 17. A re-creation of the outdoor prayer service following the tornado will be held, and the eternal flame in Christ Chapel, which remained burning during the storm, will be carried during the service, as will the cross from the original steeple. The St. Peter community will be holding a TREEmendous Twister Party on March 29 at the St. Peter Community Center, which will include a silent auction, a “quiet room” with pictures of the aftermath and activities for all ages.
Although ten years have passed and Gustavus is slowly healing from the scars left by the tornado, those who were at Gustavus during those turbulent times will never forget the days and weeks following. “We had this tremendous community of people working together,” said Sammelson, “We always sort of called ourselves the ‘tornado group.’”
Photos courtesy of: The Gustavus Archives, Robert Petrich and Alex Stassen