On March 29, 1998, Saint Peter was devastated by a F-3 tornado that destroyed homes, tore through the campus of Gustavus, and took one life. Almost twenty-two years later, Gustavus (and the entire world) has been forced to confront the novel coronavirus and the uneasy reality and uncertainty of the future. The tornado in 1998 had a major impact on the College, and of course, the students themselves. Tough times and difficult decisions were made then, with the damage caused by the tornado; and now, with the threat of COVID-19; but Gustavus was and is committed to protecting students during times of unprecedented change.
Following the tornado, which was estimated to have caused $50-52 million in damages to the Gustavus campus, the College made the decision to close in order to assess the devastation and make repairs. Luckily, March 29 fell on the first weekend of Spring Break in 1998, so most students were not on campus during this time. The tornado was considered one of the worst natural disasters in Minnesota’s history.
One of the most well-known damages to the Gustavus campus was the Chapel: the tornado snapped off its spire just above the roofline. In addition, Johnson Hall, a small dormitory which housed fifty students and the Crossroads Program, was damaged beyond repair and had to be destroyed. The tornado also caused the destruction of six houses owned by the College. Over 2,000 trees were lost, and an estimated 80 percent of the windows on campus were broken.
Many believed the College would shut down for the rest of the semester, or even indefinitely, but Gustavus remained closed for only three weeks before allowing students back on campus to finish the school year. Even so, FEMA-like classroom buildings had to be set up in order for students to continue taking classes because so many buildings were unable to be used. The 1998 tornado did motivate the construction of Prairie View Hall, the Carlson International Center and the C. Charles Jackson Campus Center, but more importantly, so many people were willing to help out and volunteer their time during the restoration process. The tornado, while disastrous and deadly, strengthened the sense of community within Gustavus and the greater Saint Peter area.
Fast-forward to the year 2020, and Gustavus has decided to close its doors because of the global coronavirus pandemic. Unlike the shutdown in 1998, President Bergman has communicated to students (in a March 17 email) that Gustavus will remain closed through the end of the spring semester. For Gustie students, parents, faculty and staff alike, this decision has been met with anxiety and fear for the future of the College (and the world as a whole). Since the situation is developing day by day, and even hour by hour, many feel like they are “in the dark” about the choices being made by the College; but as always, Gustavus has the best interests of students in mind.
In contrast to spring semester 1998, the rest of spring semester 2020 will involve online learning as the sole method of coursework. The semester is set to resume on March 30. Just as students did not register for online courses, most professors were not prepared to teach their courses through online-only methods, either. There will definitely be a learning curve for everyone, so patience is key!
COVID-19 is a worldwide issue and its impact reaches far beyond Gustavus and the Saint Peter area. Gustavus has made the decision to close in order to keep students, faculty and staff safe during this time of uncertainty. So, please continue to follow the guidelines set out by experts: practice social distancing, self-quarantine if you feel sick, and always wash your hands thoroughly! Stay safe, Gusties.