ST. PETER (AP) -- Three years after a tornado swept over this south-central Minnesota city and destroyed hundreds of its trademark Victorian homes, U.S. Census show what no one expected: population growth.
St. Peter isn't the only Minnesota community that's faced a natural disaster in the last decade, but it may be only one to gain population thereafter.
Recovery here is ongoing. But Main Street glows with freshly painted facades -- and the town once known for it's canopy of green has hundreds of young trees.
According to the 1990 census, St. Peter's population was 9,421 -- a number that was expected to drop in the aftermath of the 1998 storm.
Yet when the state demographer began estimating the city's population a year after the tornado, he confounded his own predictions. His calculations found 2 percent growth.
Now the latest numbers from the U.S. census support that notion, with St. Peter registering at just under 10,000 people.
City administrator Todd Prafke said he thinks word of the tornado and its aftermath drew people to St. Peter.
"Communities are just like any other business to some extent," Prafke said. "Our name was out there a lot, people heard a lot of things that were neat about St. Peter and decided that this was maybe an OK place, whereas before they would have taken another look at Mankato or another community."
The tornado destroyed more than 200 homes and left 400 others badly damaged -- all in city already suffering from a major housing shortage. Prafke estimates damage totaled between $300 million and $500 million.
But concerns the river town's population would resettle in surrounding communities proved untrue. Instead, the handful that did leave were quickly replaced as the city rushed to put up affordable housing -- drawing young families into the community.
School Superintendent Gil Carlson said the tornado gave the city an opportunity to become more economically diverse.
"About half of the people who worked in St. Peter lived outside of St. Peter," she said of results of a housing study. "Now they put in assisted living centers, they put subsidized housing in, they put in low income housing (and) executive housing so we're trying to attract a more diverse population. Now the people that work in our community can afford to live in our community."
St. Peter may stand alone among Minnesota cities and towns that have gained population in the face of disaster.
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. Three years later came a tornado -- neither storm helped its population, which had already been in steady decline in the 1980s.
According to census numbers, 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.
Pat Owens, former Grand Forks, N.D., mayor and current consultant for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said it's natural for people to leave in the wake of disaster.
"I think most cities are the same because at the beginning it's very hard," Owens said. "You get very tired, it's very hard on the mind and it just seems overwhelming. But as things start coming together I believe people do start coming back."
New census figures show that Grand Forks lost only 104 people during the last decade, which included the 1997 Red River flood that ravaged the eastern North Dakota community,
Comfrey, a small town west of St. Peter, was hit by the same tornado in March of 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 Prafke said the opposite may be true.
"It's been a wonderful, terrible three years," Prafke said. "I don't know how else to describe it. Our potential is much greater than its ever been in the past."
Now, St. Peter is creating a sophisticated fiber-optic network. Prafke said it will make the town among the most technologically savvy in the nation -- something he hopes will be reflected in the 2010 census.
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