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Tornado Anniversary
By Mark Steil
March 29, 1999
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On March 29, 1998, a tornado cut a nearly 70-mile path of destruction through southern Minnesota. The storm practically destroyed the town of Comfrey, and the destructive winds hit hundreds of farms, knocking down houses, barns and silos. The economic hardship caused by the storm arrived just as agriculture was sinking into a financial crisis. The worst farm damage was in Brown County, where the physical and emotional rebuilding continues today.

A YEAR AFTER THE STORM, unforgettable images remain stark in memory or photographs. Images of twisted, collapsed barns, storm-shocked dairy cattle wandering through crop fields, silos snapped in half, debris blown in drifts through tree groves like snow. On his Brown County farm, Alphonse Mathiowetz looks across a landscaped bruised by the rampaging wind. A visitor sees a new house, machine shed and garage; Mathiowetz sees all that and more.
Mathiowetz: Here was a granary settin'. And then I had them three bins there and then there was three to the east there yet. They were in the ground you know, about two-and-a-half feet with a - that ground ring on you know - and tore them right out of there. Had a barn over here, a cattle yard fence there, you know most of that I couldn't believe how that pulled that right out. Just unreal.
The tornado destroyed the tree and building barrier which defined the comforting boundaries of his home. Mathiowetz says it's still a shock to look out at night and see neighbor yard lights glowing for miles around.
Mathiowetz: When I was in the yard here, you didn't see much. It was just grove and buildings. Now I can look out all over. You can sure feel it too.
It's those types of daily reminders of loss which are hardest to deal with. He and his wife are happy they rebuilt here where they've lived for four decades, but every job, every step, is a reminder of what's been lost.
Mathiowetz: And you know, when I go out there like when we was putting fill in a shed. We already done that on two sheds, now we got to do it again. Or we have to wire, rewire. I mean, I had that stuff all done. And like this mud out here. I went through that, how many times I go through it. Now I've got to go through it again. Them are the things.
Mathiowetz says in 45 seconds, the tornado destroyed what took 43 years to build. That sort of loss took place on more than 100 Brown County farms. Like the Mathiowetz's, county extension agent, Wayne Schoper, says in almost every case the families living on those farms decided to rebuild.
Schoper: I think you just kind of get to a situation where you feel that we're not going to let this thing beat us. We're going to hang in there and re-establish. We've lived in this neighborhood all of our lives, and they're not going to let something like a tornado dictate where they live.
Schoper says an army of volunteers helping clean up farms and fields was a factor in convincing some to rebuild. He says with many farmers hanging on by an economic thread because of low commodity prices, the county can't afford to lose any farmers to a tornado.
Schoper: When you consider that we have approximately 1,000 farms in Brown County, and we're looking at 10 to 15 percent that were affected by this storm. We could have all of a sudden lost approximately 10 percent of our farm population in an hour's worth of storm there.
One of the farmers who stayed put was one of the hardest hit. Walking across his farm lot, Loren Schumacher says the tornado destroyed 11 of his buildings. He stops by a herd of black-and-white dairy cows housed in a newly constructed barn.
Schumacher: There's four different pens in here. We house small calves way on the east end moving all the way down to the, the bigger, bred heifers on this end.
But not everything can be replaced. Schumacher built a new machine shed to go with the barn, but that's all. Not nearly enough to make up for all he lost in the storm. Insurance helped, but didn't cover everything. He borrowed money to make up the difference. Schumacher also had other worries. As a member of the Comfrey School Board, he spent many hours helping decide how that school would continue after the tornado destroyed its main buildings. All that work left him short on time.
Schumacher: Besides all the normal farm work, you know, you got all this rebuilding going on. Then you got school board matters to take care of and you also got to remember your family. It's tough. Some people have asked me, "well, are you going to leave now?" Because I basically didn't have any buildings other than the house left. "No," I said, "I'm not going to leave, this is where I belong."
But staying and dealing with destruction can take a toll. Alphonse Mathiowetz found that out.
Mathiowetz: I'll tell you one thing: it's a lot harder starting over the second time than the first time. It gets to a guy.
Mathiowetz believes the tornado stress caused him to develop high blood pressure. Others are also suffering. Mathiowetz is concerned about tornado victims withdrawing, trying to deal with the stress and depression themselves. He says some people he used to see in church have stopped attending. Mathiowetz says he also notices the tornado's impact on people who didn't suffer any property damage at all. He says sometimes they seem reluctant to talk to people who were hit.
Mathiowetz: There's a lot of people that don't know what to say to you. You know, being what happened here. Rather than saying something, they won't say anything. And sometimes, you know, you get that feeling that maybe we done something wrong that they don't want to visit with you. I've noticed that, but I guess its just part of the disaster.
On the wall of the Mathiowetz' new house hangs a picture of the farm taken from an airplane before the tornado, including barn, a thick grove of trees and a two-story house. Nearly everything in that picture was destroyed. The exception is a solitary cedar tree. Although its top half was lopped off by the tornado, the Mathiowetz' decided to let it stand. As the wind blows through its twisted limbs, it reminds anyone passing by of the sometimes overwhelming change the tornado brought to everyone who lived through it.

Mark Steil covers southwest Minnesota for Minnesota Public Radio. You can reach him at