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25 years later, southern Minnesota tornado outbreak still not forgotten

On March 29, 1998, an intense supercell spawned 14 tornadoes in the St. Peter-Comfrey region, killing two, injuring 21 others and leaving unthinkable destruction.

ST PETER, Minn. — It's been 25 years, but few in southern Minnesota have forgotten.

On March 29, 1998, an intense supercell spawned 14 tornadoes in the St. Peter-Comfrey region, killing two and injuring 21 others. In about a four-hour span, the storm caused roughly $300 million in damage, including heavy damage to Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter.

Last year, KARE 11's John Croman caught up with some of the people who witnessed the storm first-hand.

"When the third siren went off, we went down into the basement. Knowing now what I know, we were lucky we had as much warning as we did," said Glenn Kranking, a student at Gustavus Adolphus in 1998, in an interview last year.

Kranking was among about 50 students who remained in town as spring break began. He lived at Swedish House, a Victorian home on the edge of campus when an EF-3 touched down that afternoon. He was there with Elin Ahlden, a fellow resident of Swedish House, and her parents who had just arrived from Sweden to visit Minnesota.

When they emerged from their home, campus security instructed them and other students to take shelter at a nearby dormitory in case more twisters followed.

"As we were heading to that dormitory looking back at the house, we noticed the entire top half of the house was gone. That's when we realized the extent of what we had just been through," he recalled.

On the same day, that same weather system produced an EF-4 tornado that flattened the small town of Comfrey. Three-quarters of the buildings were either damaged or destroyed by 200 mph winds, including the school and local churches. 

"I went back upstairs again, the wind was just horrible, then I heard the train noise and headed to the basement again," Linda Wallin said in an interview last year. "I ran to the corner and sat and closed my eyes hoping my house would still be there."

Wallin, who was the town's mayor at the time, emerged from her basement to find a scene of utter destruction on the town's main drag.

"My first thought when I got to the end of the street was nobody was alive," she recalled. "I mean there was nobody out there but me. That's the first thing I thought of."

She said a young woman approached her to say she had been at an anniversary celebration at the community center. Everyone at the party had somehow survived by huddling together in a cloak room.

A lumber yard owned by Wallin's husband was one of the businesses wrecked by the massive twister, but as mayor she had to turn her attention to helping coordinate cleanup efforts with Brown County Emergency Preparedness authorities and the Minnesota National Guard.

"I also had my lab job to go back to, but they let me stay out for a month so I could work on the recovery," said Wallin, who was a medical lab technician at the time.

For the first three years after the tornado, Wallin worked three days a week on the town's recovery and three days a week at her lab job.

WATCH: Video from 1998 as tornado bears down on the Roy Janni farm, 5 miles north of Hanska. 

March 29, 2023 is 25 years since the Comfrey-St. Peter tornado came across Southern Minnesota about ¾ mile South of our farm located 5 miles North of Hanska. On that day, we heard news reports on TV about a tornado heading our way. I began Video taping when we saw a huge dark cloud moving our way from the Southwest, thinking maybe I could get a glimpse of the tornado. After a minute or two, we realized that it was the tornado that we were seeing. I kept taping from a South facing open door until it got uncomfortable with what we were watching and hearing, and headed to the basement. After the noise died down a bit, we came upstairs to check on the damage and I began videoing the back side of the tornado as it headed away in an Easterly direction. We had hail, some grapefruit size, but no much damage. A person from the National Weather Service told us that we had a good view of the tornado because the heavy rain was North of us, and we were in a narrow band next to the tornado's path were there were no high winds or rain until the tornado passed, that can be seen on this video. Later, we took a drive to check out area damage and that video is included here. Days later, as we drove along the tornado's path, we took more video of damage from East of Searles to our farm. That video, never posted on the internet anywhere, will be posted on my Facebook page after I get it pieced together. I made copies of this video, on VHS tape and DVD, and distributed to many people in the area that were affected by the tornado.

Posted by Roy Janni on Tuesday, March 28, 2023

KARE 11 meteorologist Belinda Jensen says the twister that touched down in Comfrey was on the ground for 56 miles, and debris was found more than 130 miles away.

A quarter century after that fateful day, both communities have made amazing recoveries but things will never be as they were. There is a lot less shade at Gustavus, where a bucolic tree-lined landscape was removed in a matter of seconds. 

Comfrey's population was 446 the day of the twister, and now stands at 381, but Wallin sees hopeful signs with a new school and some businesses thriving again.

"I'm grateful for all the people that lived there and everything they did to get us back to where we are."


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