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St. Peter Grows Despite Tornado
By Erin Galbally
Minnesota Public Radio
March 29, 2001
Part of MPR's online coverage of The Faces of Minnesota
Click for audio RealAudio

Three years ago, a tornado swept over the south-central Minnesota town of St. Peter, destroying hundreds of its trademark Victorian homes. Newly-released census numbers show St. Peter's population has actually jumped in the storm's aftermath, and officials are consciously planning for continued expansion. St. Peter isn't the only Minnesota community to face a natural disaster, but it may be only one to gain population as a result.

The population of St. Peter has grown since a deadly tornado hit the town three years ago. One attraction is the town's Victorian-style homes and buildings. This is the E. St. Julien Cox House, built in 1871. This Gothic/Italianate house was home to one of St. Peter's most colorful characters, Julien Cox, who served as mayor, state senator, and judge.
(Photo courtesy of the Nicollet County Historical Society)
THREE YEARS AFTER A MASSIVE TORNADO TORE THROUGH ST. PETER, census results show the town is thriving - even growing. While recovery is ongoing, today Main Street glows with freshly-painted facades. The town once known for its canopy of green has hundreds of young trees. According to the 1990 census, St. Peter's population was 9421. The state demographer calculated population estimates in 1998, the year of the tornado, and in 1999, based on new building permits and conversations with city officials. The estimates contradicted expectations that St. Peter would lose residents in the storm's aftermath, by recording a surprising two percent growth. Now the latest numbers from the US census support the notion that the population has grown, with St. Peter registering at just under 10,000 people. City administrator Todd Prafke says, surprisingly, word of the tornado and its aftermath drew people to St. Peter.

"Communities are just like a business to some extent. Our name was out there a lot, people heard a lot of things that were neat about St. Peter and decided that this was an OK place. Before, they would have taken another look at Mankato or another community," says Prafke.

The tornado destroyed more than 200 homes and left 400 others badly damaged - all in a city already suffering from a major housing shortage. All told, Prafke estimates damage totaled between $300 million and $500 million.


But concerns that the river town's population would disperse and resettle in surrounding communities proved unfounded. Instead, the handful that did leave were quickly replaced as the city rushed to put up affordable housing, which drew young families into the community. School Superintendent Gil Carlson says the tornado gave the city an opportunity to become more economically diverse.

"We did a housing study, and about half of the people who worked in St. Peter lived outside of St. Peter," says Carlson. "Now, they've put in assisted living centers, they've put subsidized housing in, they've put in low income housing and executive housing. We're trying to attract a more diverse population. Now the people that work in our community can afford to live in our community," he says.


St. Peter may stand alone among Minnesota cities and towns that have faced disaster, by gaining population. The Minnesota towns of Granite Falls and East Grand Forks both fought off flood waters that destroyed homes and jobs in the late 1990s. High waters hit Granite Falls in 1997 causing $7 million in damage, and three years later came a tornado. Neither storm helped its population, which was already in a steady decline in the 1980s.

According to the census, flood-ravaged East Grand Forks has lost more than 13 percent of its population since the last census in 1990. Still, city officials say they're relieved it's less than the 20 percent loss they expected. Former East Grand Forks mayor Pat Owens says, in the wake of overwhelming disaster, its natural for people to leave.

"Some leave for just a period of time. I think that the elderly - a lot of them were ready to retire or retiring - did leave at that point to go into a retirement home," says Owens, who is now a consultant for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "At the beginning it's very hard, and you get very tired. It just seems overwhelming, but as things start coming together, I believe people do start coming back," Owens says.

Comfrey, a small town west of St, Peter, was hit by the same tornado in March, 1998. There, officials are also optimistic that their small town will rebound. But Comfrey has lost population, according to census results. An estimated 60 people have left the town, a trend officials attribute to the storm and rural flight.


In St. Peter, City Administrator Todd Prafke says the opposite may be true.

"It's been a wonderful, terrible three years. I don't know how else to describe it. Our potential is much greater than it's ever been in the past," says Prafke.

Now, St. Peter is creating a sophisticated fiber-optic network. Prafke says it will make the town among the most technologically-savvy in the nation - something he hopes will be reflected in the 2010 census.