COMFREY — Church bells rang and civil defense sirens wailed at 4:28 p.m. Wednesday, marking the 25th anniversary of the F4 tornado that destroyed much of Comfrey on March 29, 1998.
A group of people listen to a panel discussion on how communities respond to strong, unseasonable tornadoes and help rebuild communities.
A number of people were grateful for the fact that no one died locally in the massive tornado which some say was so wide, (a mile and a half by some estimates), they thought it was a wall cloud, not a tornado.
Former Comfrey Police Chief Jim Meyer described the storm in detail.
“It was so black, I thought it was the end of the world,” said Meyer. “Then after all the darkness, I saw the light. I saw a busload of people from the Twin Cities coming to help us clean up. I saw two women who were true heroes, two Lindas (former Comfrey Mayor Linda Wallin and former Comfrey City Clerk Linda Friesen Weber). They put the city back together.”
“The Brown County Sheriff’s Office and the Minnesota State Patrol have been very helpful to us right after the tornado,” said Meyer. “I was shocked. Then I witnessed the city’s rebirth. I will always be from Comfrey and proud of it.”
Former Comfrey Fire Chief Mark Warner, now Butterfield Fire Chief, also describes tornadoes in detail.
“I remember radio communication being lost. The best thing was when all the firefighters came to help us.” said Warner. “We went door to door to see if everyone was okay. We do this together. We do a lot of things together. We met at St. Paul every day and talk about what we did the day before and what we need to do that day.”
“What we didn’t realize was that after a while of cleaning and rebuilding we needed to rest. It makes you do this day in and day out,” said Warner. “We keep taking and advancing. Here. We thank our good God here. Thank You.”
Former Comfrey Mayor Linda Wallin spoke of the unusual weather including a blizzard expected just two days after the tornadoes.
He said former Minnesota Governor Arne Carlson visited Comfrey several times.
“He said Comfrey could be anything he wanted,” Wallins said. “I first learned that a positive attitude is important. I learned not to sweat the small stuff. Most of our cleaning is done in three weeks.”
He credits FEMA, Salvation Army, American Red Cross, Area 9 Development, Brown County Disaster Support, and Lutheran Disaster Relief for providing so much assistance.
“We learned a lot about teamwork. I think we achieved that,” said former Comfrey Public School Superintendent Robert Meyer.
“When I first saw the school after the tornado, I saw one floor fall on another. The brick wall was demolished.” said Meyer. “We didn’t go to school for two weeks. We decided to bring school staff and students together. On April 3, 1998, the school board approved the lease of the former Sanborn school. We use it for the remainder of this year and the next school year.”
Meyer said 80 mph winds blew the tent and scattered other items just before graduation, so the ceremony was held at St. Mary’s Catholic Church. Paul at Comfrey.
The current Comfrey School opened in 2002 with a geothermal heating and cooling system with 200 wells dug 200 feet deep.
Meyer mentions other unusual aspects of the new school at that time including a preschool daycare, combining school and town library, two computer labs with internet connection.
Former chairman of the Salem Lutheran Church Council Wayne Redman said the St. Paul allowed two Lutheran parishes, which lost their churches to the tornado, to hold Sunday night meetings at the Catholic church.
“We were holding services at the Sturm Funeral Home for a while. Then we met in the cold storage warehouse before building the new church.” Redman said. “It was very stressful dealing with insurance companies (regarding tornado damage), until we got a lawyer. One insurance assessor said he thought the damage was caused by high winds. I told him he might be good at what he did, but he lacked common sense. I don’t think he likes that.
Redman said the community relied on St. Mary’s Catholic Church. Paul for many things including the 17,000 meals served to anyone after the tornado.
“No wonder I look like this,” Redman said, creating laughter.
The New Hope Lutheran Church was built on a neutral site after the two churches agreed to unite.
Loren Renberg, formerly of Faith Lutheran Church, spoke next.
“What is the value of volunteering? There’s no dollar amount for it.” said Renberg. “People walked hundreds of acres, clearing debris so spring planting could take place in 1998. We are very proud to say we are from Comfrey. Yes we can. What do I do now? I’m getting old.”