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South central Minnesota communities blown apart by a devastating tornado a year ago have marked storm's first anniversary. The tornado drew a line from west to east - from Comfrey to St. Peter to Le Center - early on the evening of Sunday March 29.IN LE CENTER, THE TORNADO blew the roofs off several small manufacturing plants and leveled a mobile home park that was home to some of the town's Hispanic residents.
Most of the residents of the Sunny Terrace mobile home park huddled together in a cinder-block storm shelter while the tornado turned the park into a pile of debris. No one was killed or seriously injured but about half of the homes were damaged beyond repair. Manager Robert Bock says the park is actually a better place today than it was before the storm.
Bock: It's a lot cleaner. I hate to say that, we didn't want a tornado so it'd look cleaner but it looks a lot nicer with the newer homes in here now and the older ones being painted. Because we did have quite a few homes in here that needed a lot of work and they weren't even worth it. They were too old, you know. But in a way, it kind of benefited the park; it cleaned it up I guess.Sunny Terrace could be a display lot for new manufactured homes now. There are three rows of new or newly-repaired mobile homes with the usual signs of life like an occasional toy, bicycle, or pair of muddy shoes on the doorstep. Most of the residents of the park are Hispanic. They came to Le Center from both sides of the Texas-Mexico border in search of jobs at nearby manufacturing and agricultural processing plants. Several agencies stepped in to help after the storm hit but no one seems to have a clear picture of how many residents owned their homes; how many had insurance; or where they all re-settled. Some were in the United States illegally and didn't ask for help rebuilding for fear of being discovered by the INS and deported. Some found apartments in neighboring towns. Others, like the Nieves family, used insurance money and loans from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and private banks to buy new trailers. Sixteen-year-old Carlos Nieves says he likes his family's new trailer better than the old one.
Nieves: This is one of the new rooms. We've got our own bathroom. My sister's next door to me. My parents room is in the back.The Nieves family owned their mobile home and had insurance. Carlos' mother, Ania, says they had hoped to find a house to buy.
Ania Nieves (translated): We were looking for a house but we were living in a hotel for three months and we needed someplace to move back in. So when we got our loan we just went straight for a trailer.The trailer cost considerably more than the $6,000 they got from their insurance, so they took out a 30-year loan to pay the difference. Many families in the park took out loans from dealers who sell mobile homes. The city of Le Center is requiring residents to buy newer homes, so the families are looking at an investment of $16,000 to $17,000. Don Borum, Housing Services Director for the Minnesota Valley Action Council, a non-profit agency that worked with many tornado victims, says many people had to get loans to supplement their insurance.
Borum: Anybody that's been affected by the storm has stepped back in their equity on their homes and taken on more debt. You see it in Comfrey, you see it in St. Peter, you see it in Le Center. Nobody ended up benefiting from the storm disaster. Everybody has higher debt related to their housing costs.Some couldn't afford to buy new trailers after the tornado and 11 vacant lots now dot the park.
Many residents talk about wanting to buy a house and move out of the park but the tornado probably set those dreams back. Now many residents of the Sunny Terrace mobile home park are working two or more jobs just to keep up with their loan payments.