Hundreds gather to reflect on tornadoes 20 years later

Hundreds of people gathered Thursday to remember those killed in the deadly outbreak of tornadoes that hit southwest Minnesota 20 years ago. 

Two decades later, the city of St. Peter believes itself to be a bigger, stronger community. But the damage is still engraved in people’s minds.

“I’ve driven by a lot of the places that I remember 20 years ago, and just thinking about how they look now,” said Chuck Zieman, the city’s mayor.

RELATED: Record tornadoes 20 years ago changed St. Peter, surrounding communities forever

The community gathered at the high school theater on the bittersweet anniversary to tell stories.

“I’m here because the community really pulled together after the tornado and that spirit hasn’t gone away,” resident Jessie Petricka said. 

In all, the 14 tornadoes left $235 million in damage in their wake, making southwest Minnesota a federal disaster area.

In St. Peter, two-thirds of the buildings were damaged, including much of the campus at Gusatuvs Adolphus.

“Twenty years ago, this community and the families that live here were shaken to the core,” U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar said Thursday. 

At 5:29 p.m. in the high school, there was a moment of silence to reflect on the exact time the tornado hit, and two lives were lost in the storm.

After the town experienced so much devastation, there was fear from city leaders that people would pick up and start over somewhere else.

But that wasn’t the case. In fact, the population has grown.

“We’re just thrilled with population increases in an era where that’s not the case for a lot of towns that are losing population,” said Ed Lee of the St. Peter Chamber of Commerce. 

The buildings and homes that shaped this community have been rebuilt.

“Kind of unimaginable the change,” Zieman said. 

Though not everyone who lives in St. Peter now was around when Mother Nature turned the city upside down, the storm has become a part of everyone.

“Really, it’s a testament to them that St. Peter still is strong and the attitude still lives on today,” Petricka said.