The Decision to Rebuild Comfrey After the 1998 Tornado
Most of the town of Comfrey was destroyed after the 1998 tornado, leaving many wondering how to move forward.
"I came into town, and even though I had patrolled this town for twenty years, I didn't recognize where I was at because all your landmarks were gone," Comfrey Police Chief Jim Meyer said. "Trees, grain bins, whole houses were moved and flattened."
Meyer said he'll never forget the tornado that nearly wiped Comfrey off the map in 1998.
"The tornado came through here and devastated the town," he said.
Most of Comfrey was destroyed by the tornado, including the cornerstone of the community: the K-12 school.
"Basically everything from the elementary part, which we call the old part, was gone," former school board member Loren Schumacher said.
The school played a pivotal role in the future of the town because it was up to the school rebuilding for the rest of Comfrey to come back.
"The school has to be rebuilt," Linda Wallin said, remembering the meetings held after the tornado hit. "If the school rebuilds, the businesses will come back, and we'll keep the people."
So a few days after the storm, school board members got what they needed: the support to move forward.
"Governor Arne Carlson came to Springfield and made the statement 'there will be a new school in Comfrey,'" former school board member Wendell Fredin said. "We met with the legislature and the department of education and we successfully got that done."
Fredin said the school board had access to both state and FEMA funds to help cover the $11 million rebuild.
The new school was outfitted with a new elementary, gym, heating and cooling system, and renovations to the part of the building left standing.
When the school opened in October of 1999, almost every student who was enrolled before the storm returned.
"Every family that had kids in this school system were offered a chance to go to other school systems for that part of that year, but they all wanted to come back," Fredin said. "You'd say 'why did you want to come back?' and [they'd say] 'cause we're Comfrey, we want to be Comfrey.'"
Soon after it was decided the school would rebuild, the town began to rebuild too.
"By Easter, our frame of mind was: 'Comfrey would rebuild. Comfrey will survive. Comfrey will rebuild,'" Wallin said. "So that's what we did."
The cleanup and rebuilding process took some time, but one thing many remember is how the storm built a bond between the people.
"When something like this happens, we all come together and kind of work towards a common goal to help somebody make the community better," farmer Pete Samuelson said. "The town of Comfrey really pulled together."
Out the rubble came rebuilt businesses with support from a revolving loan fund and economic development board, a community center holding the post office and town hall, and a new Lutheran church.
"In reality, it was a blessing in disguise, but it was hard to get to where we are today," Wallin said.
As for Police Chief Meyer, who's about to retire after 40 years, he says the strength of the tornado was indescribable, but it didn't compare to the strength of Comfrey.
"It took down everything here except the spirit of the people," he said. "That it didn't get."
--KEYC News 12