Driving County Roads

An on line journal sharing my views. The content reflects my background as a rural person employed in agriculture and as a retired elected official of local government.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

TEN YEARS AGO - Mar. 29, 1998

Ten years ago today, March 29, will live in our memories. The memories of special or significant dates have some kind of permanent marker location in our brains. These spots are easily recalled many years after the markers are placed. The day President Kennedy was shot, the St. Peter tornado, and September 11, 2001.
I was in St. Peter on March 29, 1998. Many from the Norseland area were at a wedding shower for Burt Johnson and his new wife. I recall leaving the party late in the afternoon. I made a stop at the Nicollet County Court House and gathered some papers from the office used by the county commissioners. It was located in the basement of the 1977 building. I recall getting the papers out of my file cabinet drawer, the second one from the top. After this I decided, on a whim, that I should visit my 84-year-old mother. She lived on Hwy 99 west of St. Peter on the Miner homestead that is located just a bit north of the old District 27 School. (This was being used as the Oshawa town hall at the time.)
Driving west, I had the radio on and heard Bruce Davis telling of possible bad weather. I think he was telling of the storm being in Brown County and heading toward North Mankato. My thoughts were that it was probably good for me to be with Mom, as she was alone. When I got there, I told her we should be prepared to go to the basement. She had difficulty doing steps, but I knew she could get down in the basement if she had to. We kept listening to Bruce Davis on KRBI and we tried to look out to the west. The winds increased and the last view I had out the west windows from the upstairs was of dark clouds. These were probably not clouds at all, but dirt blowing in the air picked up by the high winds. At 5:30 p.m., when the power went out (later I found out the winds took power poles down between my Mom’s house and the town hall); we went down to the basement.
At this point we were isolated, as Mom did not have a battery-operated radio (or if she did, she did not know where it was.) We watched out of the basement windows and saw trees go down. Her house was lucky to escape fairly well in tact. It experienced some roof damage with shingles torn off; the chimney was blown off. There were many trees and branches down. It blew over rapidly and then it started to rain.
It took me a little time to get my mother back upstairs. I wanted to get her settled and then go out to determine if there was damage to any of the other buildings on the 142-year-old farmstead. I was able to call our home and my husband was in the house and answered the phone. I reported the situation and he indicated that the storm had not hit in the Norseland area. It took me about 15 minutes to survey the damage which was very little, mostly trees and branches down. The farmstead is close to Hwy 99 and as I walked from building to building, many emergency vehicles were flying by, headed for St. Peter. As I came back to the house, I saw the Lafayette area ambulance headed for St. Peter and it was coming from the west as if it had been in Nicollet!! This alarmed me. I checked in with my Mom and then went out to my car and turned on the car radio. It was then that I found out the full impact of this terrible storm.
About an hour after the storm hit, my sister and her husband arrived. Mom lived with them. They had been in the western part of the state and were dreading what they would find; because they could see the destruction along the way as they headed home. It was dark when I left for my home, taking the long way around, not knowing what roads would be open. I drove over downed power lines. That night even our phone did not work properly. At one point I was able to call our oldest son in Olivia and report all being safe. He then conveyed the message to the many relatives afar. It was nearing 10 p.m. that Bob Podhradsky called me to fill me in on the Court House damage.
On Monday officials were asking people to stay away until things were organized. I listened and obeyed. On Tuesday, one of the county department heads called me to give me an update. I said, I had not been in town or observed the scene; because of requests not to come to St. Peter. It was mentioned that since I was a county commissioner, “I should be there, to observe and be a part of any decisions.” So, I decided I should go to the EOC and see what was going on. I drove into St. Peter.
I found out things were working well. There was a job for me in the EOC, answering phones. It was on this day that I entered the Commissioner’s office and went to my file drawer. When I pulled it out, I noticed there was dust and tiny amounts of debris on top of the file. I remember thinking, this debris was not here on Sunday afternoon. It was a visible sign of how badly the building had been shaken, even in the basement. This dust and debris had come from the ceiling area of the lower floor of the building.
People asked me, “Why isn’t the board holding special meetings?” They had heard that the Brown County Board started holding special meetings immediately following the storm. The Nicollet County Board did hold some special meetings, but not immediately. Each day at the EOC, things seemed to get a little better. One day Congressman David Minge came to town. I got the job of walking him through the town to show the worst devastation i.e. the Catholic Church, the German Lutheran Church, the Arts and Heritage Center, and the old Central School. One day James DeWitt, the head of FEMA came to town. Governor Arne Carlson came to town and met with the City Council and the County Board. I also accompanied Senator Rod Grams on a tour of the rural areas. No matter whom we talked to, they offered help and the common theme was the trees! The wonderful trees were gone.
So many people were sad about the trees, thinking they would never see them grow back. My thoughts were also sad about the trees, but I have watched trees grow and if they are given a chance they grow very fast. I have watched an oak tree grow from an acorn to over six feet tall in eight years. And they say oaks grow very slowly. The truth of the matter is that when trees are so large, they inhibit the smaller, younger trees from growing. When the sun gets to the younger trees, they grow very fast.
About 14 months after the tornado, I walked out of the Court House to get into my car. I looked up at the Gustavus hill and I could see with clarity the large dormitory, Sorenson Hall. As I stood there, I thought is it really 1999 or is it 1959? Because I recall being on Minnesota Avenue in 1959 and being able to see the buildings on campus. The trees were shorter then. I knew that the younger, smaller trees would have a better chance now without so much competition. And it will not be very long until these trees will have their day and the streets of St. Peter will be arched with large branches offering the shade we all covet on the hot summer days. Ten years have passed and already, the tree cover is recovering nicely. And the people of the area rebound along with the trees. The people are recovering very nicely also. end

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