For those who don't know, I was working at the time as the
chief meteorologist at KEYC television in Mankato. I had worked there for
about a year and a half, and the weather had almost always been interesting
during my tenure there. The day after I had started (mid October 1996),
the weather turned stormy and seemed to stay that way through the entire winter
of 1997, which was marked by a plethora of blizzards. There has not been
a winter anything like that since. The active winter weather was nice,
but I was wanting to work a severe weather
event. I thought I had my chance on July 1, 1997, but the storm system
only skirted the very northern edge of our viewing area, so there was not much
extra work for me to do. Gradually, the season moved on without a major
event unfolding in the viewing area. I would have to wait until the 1998
season for my next chance. Meanwhile, the winter of 1997-98 would not be
nearly so dramatic because of the strong El Nino.
Then came the end of March. I was scheduled to assist a National Weather Service forecaster, Bill Togstad, teach a Skywarn class at South Central Technical College in North Mankato on Thursday March 26. This is the class where I called up Bill to see if I could help by providing any video, slides, etc. of my own, and to maybe do the class as a "tag team" approach. He told me I could help by setting up a slide projector and a television set up for him. Well, so much for the teaching, but it was a nice early spring evening. It was warm and humid (rare for the end of March in Minnesota), and there were thunderstorms not far away.
After sitting in on the Skywarn class, I checked the prognostications for Sunday and Monday. The pattern sure looked interesting, and if there was a setup that was absolutely ideal for producing early season tornadoes in southern Minnesota, this was it. However, I was thinking, that with limited CAPE, the tornadoes would have to be quite small and limited in number (my thinking on early season outbreaks has changed considerably since then). I was a little upset that I had to miss an interesting system-- one that would probably be chaseable, but it was more important to spend time with the family on a ski trip to Beaver Creek, Colorado. I commented on the interesting pattern on the news that night before driving up to the Twin Cities to stay overnight at my sister's house before flying out in the morning.
I distinctly remember bringing my ham radio gear with me, ready for a chase when I got home, but I had just done a major installation in my car, so I guess I had the gear with me anyway. I was able to quickly remove it from the car for theft prevention purposes, and brought it inside the house for the trip. We flew out to Colorado and had two days of very nice skiing. Unfortunately, the large amount of snow I hoped for, from the same trough that would provide the interesting weather to Minnesota, did not materialize. At the end of the second day of skiing (Sunday March 29), my sister phoned her boyfriend back home, who said that the news was reporting about six tornadoes in southern Minnesota. When she relayed this information to me, it struck me like a shock of electricity overloading my brain, combined with a particularly deep sinking feeling in my stomach. My worst fears were being realized. Indeed, the event had picked the time of my absence to strike. I wasted no time in calling back to KEYC to see what had happened. When Bryan Karrick told me the details of what had transpired, I was in absolute and total disbelief. St. Peter, a rather sizeable town, had been devastated, with most of the city ruined. What was probably worse (and I really felt picked on), was the fact that Comfrey, the home of my "official fan club", had been leveled as well. This was just not fair. It was a total disaster. For any television weathercaster, there is one severe weather outbreak that clearly stands out as his or her "career" event, and for me, that event had just taken place during my 3-day family vacation out of state.
Well, it was late, and the rest of the family went to bed. I did, too, but there was almost no sleep for me. I was completely beside myself. In the morning (March 30), I demanded to fly back to Minnesota, so my folks drove me back to Denver for an early flight back home. I took a Taxi back to my sister's house, grabbed my ham radio gear, then drove down to Mankato. As I approached St. Peter, there was a roadblock manned by the State Patrol. Hoping to see the damage just before dark, I approached the officer and told him I was the local KEYC meteorologist. He responded by directing me to take the detour around town. Oh, well. I got back to KEYC just in time to watch the taping of the Bandwagon show. There was nothing else I could do to help out. The reporters already had everything covered, so I just went home and got ready for the next day.
In the morning (Tuesday March 31), I was able to caravan with the news crew to St. Peter to see the damage firsthand. Of course, the National Guard was controlling access to the town and checking the identification of everyone who entered to verify they were either a resident or a properly designated responder. There was an awfully long line of cars, and the wait to get into town was pretty long. About halfway up the line, as I was staring down at the pavement in front of me, still sulking about missing the event, some guy in his car next to me recognized who I was and waved to get my attention. When I grudgingly looked over, he rolled down his window, smiling, and cracked, "You picked a hell of a time to go on vacation!" For that moment, sense of humor overcame all feelings of despair, and we both managed to laugh at our common predicament (he, a St. Peter resident whose house had probably been hit and me, the TV weather guy who missed the whole thing and was helpless to do anything about it). This encounter greatly improved my mood for the day and the rest of the week.
For most of that week, I spent my off hours volunteering with amateur radio communications in St. Peter and in Comfrey. In St. Peter, I was assisting the Red Cross, and I worked inside in some large building in St. Peter. I don't remember where, exactly, but it may well have been on the Gustavus Adolphus campus. I didn't get to talk to a whole lot of people there. In Comfrey, things were a little different. I was assigned to a Salvation Army truck that was bringing meals around town and to rural areas outside of town. On my food truck tours, I was able to run into a few of the people who had attended my "fan club" celebrations, and it really seemed to cheer them up that I had come out to help after the event. Certainly, it cheered me up as well, knowing that I could do something, even if it was to provide some sort of emotional support for the folks there.
I've gradually gotten over missing that event, but it still stands out as one of the most remarkable events of my meteorological career, even though I was not there.
FYI, the Comfrey fan club was a group of people who were regular patrons of Kelsey's Bar in town. It was sort of a community gathering spot for social activities. They were really interested in meeting me, but I'm sure they also wanted me to loosen up a bit since I regularly received comments that I looked a bit nervous on air, despite the fact that I no longer felt that way. To provide an excuse for me to visit, they came up with the idea of starting an official fan club. One day at the station, I received a letter and a list with about 90 names on it. At the time, I did not know how to respond because I sensed they were up to something. After a couple weeks, I got another letter from them, wondering why I had not responded and that they would really be interested in meeting me in person. The list had expanded to about 120 names. Well, this time, I called them right away.
After a couple months of searching and failing to find a mutual meeting time, we finally agreed to the date of July 26, 1997 for my visit. To my amazement, when I arrived, the place was packed. They told me it was normally pretty empty and that my scheduled visit was the reason most of the crowd was there. Maybe their claims were exaggerated, but I'm sure it was a larger than normal attendance, and it seemed fill the need of providing a nice party to break up the hard summer work of farming. Since I could not stay late that evening, I felt obliged to stay longer the second time they had me out, which was February 14, 1998. On that second trip, the folks in the bar were really buying me quite a few drinks, the likes of which I had not consumed until then and have not tasted since, and I returned to Mankato the next day with a pretty nasty hangover. Perhaps it was a lesson not to start a fan club for any TV meteorologist or at least not to send him home with a hangover, but the tornado hit little more than a month later, and Kelsey's Bar was leveled. When the reporter from KEYC came to town to cover the immediate aftermath of the event, he happened to take zoomed-in video of the Kelsey's Bar pool table, covered with debris but still standing, from which he zoomed out to reveal the flattened mess which was the former two-story building. I also happened to have pretty much the same shot, from my own video camera, as I walked in toward the pool table amidst the packed festivities on July 26. I was able to put these two shots together to create a rather dramatic video effect of the before-and-after.
I made occasional visits to check up on the town's recovery progress whenever I had a chance, but the frequency of visits diminished as I moved farther and farther away. I've always admired the independent spirit of that place, as well as their sense of identity. It sure seemed to help them rebuild. A lot of rural communities that size would not have recovered.