Hit hard but going strong: The slow, frustrating, but ultimately rewarding rebuilding of North Minneapolis


May 22, 2011, started out as most Sundays did. There was hangout time at our church, Mercy Vineyard, that morning, and as usual some sort of family function in the afternoon; this Sunday it was a family birthday party out in Maplewood.

In typical Minnesotan fashion, as the sirens blared and the sky got darker, we stood around in the garage lamenting at how dark the clouds were and how much rain was about to dump on us, and most distressing of all, what about the tenderloin on the grill? The storm raged hard and fast, and the sun quickly began to shine. Born and raised in Minnesota, I knew that this was just how things went, and we continued on with the festivities. Minutes later, someone came out and said that a tornado had hit, in North Minneapolis, and wasn’t that where we lived?

My stomach instantly dropped. Not only do we live in North Minneapolis, but we also love North Minneapolis. It’s our community, our home. We quickly went into panic mode.

The Fear of Not Knowing

As we all stared at the images on the TV screen trying to gain some kind of information about what had happened, our frustration and anxiety began to grow. It seemed as though the damage was widespread and devastating, but they weren’t giving actual locations. We began calling our friends and neighbors to make sure everyone was all right, and to see how our little bungalow had fared. Not to mention our dog, who was stuck inside with no one home, poor little girl.

We quickly found out that our house was intact, but that things in the neighborhood were bad. Really bad. After an hour of hemming and hawing about what to do, we knew we had to get home. As we drove to our house, IDs in hand ready to gain us entry, nothing could have prepared us for what we saw: Massive, hundreds-of-years-old trees lay limp in the streets like matchsticks; concrete was ripped from the sidewalk with ravaged stumps and roots pouring out; people were everywhere, wandering the streets in shock at what, moments before, had been our beautiful neighborhood.

Within moments of entering North we reached a downed tree and were diverted to a side road. We slammed on the brakes as we realized that road too had a tree smack in the middle, with the other end atop a family’s home. We backed up, turned around, and proceeded to find the same scenario down each street. Tree after tree, roofs, entire sides of houses, you name it—all lying in the street, as if they just fell there helplessly from their places, as if they’d always been there.

With a screaming baby in the back seat, my heart racing, I was at a loss. I felt so helpless, and just needed to get home. We regrouped, calmed down, and took our chances at navigating the streets once again. It was a slow go, but finally we made it home safe.

After finally reaching home and checking on our pup, Remi, ensuring that she hadn’t had a heart attack, Angie and I started scanning Facebook and Twitter. We texted people we knew in the neighborhood, while the TV ran in the background. I found an app for my phone called Tunein Radio that allowed us to listen to local police and emergency radio traffic, turning my phone into one of the handy police scanners they sell at Radio Shack. I kept an ear tuned into the activity, and happened to catch the alert that went out regarding the looting of Broadway Liquors. It was a stupid and mindless act that happened quickly and was over in a moment.

As the afternoon turned into night, it was reported that, due to an increase in gunshots and the fear of further looting, rescue crews were being protected by the Minneapolis Police Department. At 9:00 p.m., the city of Minneapolis announced that a curfew would be in place for North Minneapolis until 6:00 a.m. The thought of widespread looting and roving bands of gun-toters was enough to send an already on-edge neighborhood into unnecessary panic.

We aren’t naive, and as much as we adore our neighborhood, we know that it has a  reputation for violence and crime. Although acts of violence occur, it doesn’t happen nearly as much as the media would like anyone to believe. We scoured the Internet, looking for news of what was really happening outside of our home. We questioned whether we should wait it out or head to family’s house in the suburbs. Would we be safe within our own home, or would a group of thugs be making their way through our street at any moment, looking for an opportunity to  pillage and plunder any house they came across? We have a small baby, so were we being idiots, putting our son and ourselves into unnecessary danger? As an Iraq war Vet who lives with PTSD, I couldn’t help but going into a hyper-vigilant, security-minded mode. Once I was able to calm myself and Angie down and be realistic, we realised that we knew the community well enough to know that such a scenario was highly unlikely. No, there was nowhere else we wanted to be that night; we wanted to be home. We needed to be home.

Neighbor Helping Neighbor: The Morning After

We were up early the next morning, after a restless night’s sleep. We began checking our social media informants again, and found out that friends of ours had damage to their houses. Without a second thought, we called our jobs to let them know we wouldn’t be coming, and loaded ourselves (and baby) into the car to see what we could do.

Venturing about, we came across droves of people, both of the professional and amateur variety, using chain saws, shovels, and even cranes to clear away trees and debris. Our mouths were agape as we saw just how bad everything looked in the light of the morning.

Amid the destruction, the beautiful sight of “neighbor helping neighbor” was everywhere. As we said above, our neighborhood often gets a bad rap, and North Minneapolis tends to only be mentioned in the news when something negative happens here, but this side of North Minneapolis is often left out or unnoticed. The community, the neighborly love, the humanity. As we came upon our friends’ mangled home, we got to work. Baby secured in a carrier, we began clearing whatever we could. Not much we could do by way of the massive tree on the roof, but we did everything we could and then crossed the street to see what other neighbors needed helping.

As May 23 went on, you could slowly start to see the tension, anxiety, and frustration setting in. We happened upon a makeshift food shelf and donation point on the corner of Logan and Lowry. Several card tables had been erected and food was piling up. I approached someone who looked as though she may be in charge of the rogue operation. She said that having been without power now for almost 24 hours, there was no food and no water. People were hungry, and there had been no help from organizations to check up on them. She let me know that people were not going to leave their homes; everything they owned was in there. As I looked down the street of one of the hardest hit areas, many of the homes were missing entire stories. Gaping holes were left where roofs once were. Among the most damaged houses, some residents were refusing to leave.

Unless you’ve ever had to walk away from what little you had, I can imagine that refusing to leave your torn-apart house and scattered belongings must seem rather ridiculous. Having come from a household of very little, I can understand how traumatic the idea of just leaving all of your possessions unguarded can be.

As we made our way back into the neighborhood, letting people we came across know about the food points, we came across a Red Cross worker, who was attempting to go from house to house, checking in with the inhabitants and assessing their needs. We let the worker know that there were people waiting to hear where the Red Cross and whomever else would be setting up assistance areas. The young aid worker was undoubtedly grateful, as they were obviously swamped with trying to get to everyone and do as much as they could. I can’t imagine being in their shoes, and I am so grateful they were there to help.

Opening up, Reaching out

That afternoon, we had learned that Kindred Kitchen—an organization that provides industrial kitchen space as well as classes and resources for emerging restaurant and food businesses—would be teaming up with Nate Dogs and Gastrotruck to provide food at a neighborhood block party–style barbecue at the Broadway Avenue Cub Foods. As we were helping Nate set up his hot dog cart in the Cub Foods parking lot, despite all of the sore muscles that were becoming apparent, the air of hope and camaraderie gave a renewed strength and sense of purpose.

Angie and I were excited. Not only were we able to see residents coming together, but now some major corporations were also getting in on helping out the community. It was encouraging to see businesses that could have been “too big to care,” too far removed or unresponsive when it came to the needs of its community, were giving back. OK, I’m sure this was also a great PR opportunity for Cub Foods, but more importantly, it provided an actual need to actual people, which is what matters the most in times like this. Not only did Cub Foods open up its lot to donate food and resources for the barbecues during the days following the tornado, but on July 14, the local grocery store chain also gave $30,000 to three major faith-based organizations: Church of the Ascension, Shiloh Temple International, and Masjid An-Nur Mosque. Each organization received $10,000 to help community members and families who were displaced by the tornado start to rebuild their lives.

Responses from Friends and Neighbors

Although they luckily weren’t displaced, Jonathan and Christina Teichroew’s property suffered significant damage. The couple and their toddler were at home when the tornado came down the 3300 block of Irving Avenue. Community members for over six years, the Teichroews were halfway down their basement stairs when the power went out and the sirens started sounding. “When the tornado hit our house, my pregnant wife, my daughter, and I were huddled together in the basement praying that God would protect our family and our neighbors. Of course, we were in shock when we finally were able to go outside and saw the destruction,” Jonathan said. With over $50,000 in damage to their home and property, only some of it covered by insurance, the Teichroews faced an uphill battle in repairing their home.

Even with the neighborhood’s quick response, and the police and emergency services in the neighborhood, Jonathan said that “some elements, like water damage and yard cleanup, were not covered by insurance, so we’ve had to borrow money from our family to make some of those necessary repairs. Ever since this storm, the smallest thunderstorm puts us on edge.”

Many businesses were damaged as well, including one of my favorite haunts, 42nd Avenue Station. Robert Rice, who along with Geno Gelhaye own and operate the coffee shop and cafe, said of the experience, “I don’t think I felt anything at first. I just couldn’t grasp how much damage was done to the area and to the building. I guess I was in shock. It took a few days to realize it was going to be some time before we would be open for business again.”

Rice said that the shop was open during the storm, but that thankfully no one in or near the shop was injured. “We had many patrons stop in and check on us and helped us secure the building and even move our equipment out. I felt overwhelming support from the community and still do.”

Insurance will cover the damage to 42nd Avenue Station fairly well, but as of August 31, structural damage to the building had yet to be fixed. Robert expressed how frustrating it was waiting on that process. “We are determined to reopen ASAP,” he said. “Hopefully, the work gets done quickly so we can resume.”

The Teichroews said that the overall response of police, fire, and emergency crews was positive, but they also discussed their frustrations: “Tornadoes and other natural disasters are very exhausting. Not only did we spend over a week doing massive cleanup on our block, but I have been quite discouraged at the numerous hours I have had to spend pushing projects forward with various entities (and, so far, little to show for it).”

Finding the Appropriate Response

As one day turned into the next, and people continued to go without power, there began to be rumblings among some local bloggers, users of Facebook and Twitter, and even some of the individuals interviewed on the street about the slow response of state and federal relief and aid organizations.  Some were starting to compare this event to Hurricane Katrina. Some wondered if the slow response was because the area was a predominantly lower class, minority-occupied area of the Twin Cities.

Granted, as frustrating and confusing as the state and federal responses were and continue to be, I don’t think the facts point in the direction of racism and discrimination. It’s my opinion that, traditionally, Minneapolis and St. Paul have been very ill-prepared for natural disasters of this scope and magnitude, and it would seem that the Twin Cities, along with the rest of Minnesota, have made an effort to learn and be better prepared in the aftermath of each event.

For example, back on May 25, 2008, an F3 tornado ravaged Hugo, Minn. Though it’s a suburb of St. Paul with a vastly different economic and ethnic demographic, then-Governor Tim Pawlenty refused to hold a special session regarding requesting funds from FEMA or SBA. As with the North Minneapolis tornado, much of the clean-up and assistance was provided by volunteers and nonprofit organizations. And, lest we forget, it was only after the 35W bridge collapse that Minnesota realized much too late that a 1990 federal rating of  “structurally deficient” meant more then just patching and more frequent inspections to aging infrastructure. All of these events impacted lots of Minnesotans in many different ways, and the sad truth is that no county, city state or country can prepare itself for every emergency, every time one takes place. It appears that a slow response to the May 22 tornado is simply that, and not a matter of racial or economic discrimination.

“I was very proud of the city’s response, and even prouder of the strong partnerships with the community. The bonds we built will not only help us rebuild, but help with a deeper, longer term recovery,” wrote Mayor R.T. Rybak in an email. “Like the 35W bridge response, we also learned from our shortcomings, if something likes this ever happens again.”

Robert Rice, owner of 42nd Avenue Station, agreed: “I think the city and the state is doing the best they can. They have a lot on their plate when it comes to helping so many people and businesses that were affected by this disaster.”

Urban Homeworks and the Challenge of Local Recovery

Throughout much of Minnesota’s disaster relief and recovery efforts, the organizations and people who shine the most are those that emerge in the face of crisis and manage to pull off something amazing. After the tornado, it became apparent that a young nonprofit, Urban Homeworks, would be that organization.

Through some unknown grapevine I learned that the new tornado information epicenter,  Urban Homeworks, needed office help, and showed up the next day to see what I could do. The air about the office was one of chaos and confusion, but I could not believe that they had never done this before. The were able to step in and fill an organizational void that was so greatly needed was admirable.

I completed some simple data entry of some of the thousands of volunteers that had inquired about helping. The human condition must have a switch that turns on in disaster; the number of people begging to come into North Minneapolis and help was overwhelming. People offered to bring their own equipment, their own groups of 10 and more people, and just wanted to be used in some way.

Unfortunately, no one yet had any idea how to best utilize the enormity of manpower, and we were turning people away left and right. While it pained me with every phone call and click of the mouse to tell willing and able people that we couldn’t use their help at this time, I knew that the chaos that would ensue with thousands descending upon our neighborhood needed to be avoided. Within days a “Volunteer Day” was established, and we quickly filled many slots for anyone willing to lend a hand. From all over the Midwest they came, knowing only that their fellow men and women needed help and they were there to give it.

Continuing to Rebuild

Although it was encouraging to see the collaboration, cooperation, and teamwork that eventually came into existence for the sake of those victimized by the North Minneapolis tornado, it would have been nice if there had been some form of partnership preexisting the storm. Mayor Rybak’s comments echoed this sentiment: “I would like both the public and private partners to develop a coordinated list of those who were affected immediately and use that throughout the whole recovery.”

Despite the damage and the power outage, the Teichroews ended up having to spend nearly a week in a hotel, but that hasn’t changed their perception of North Minneapolis:  “We love the neighborhood, regardless of the tornado. If anything, we probably feel closer to our neighbors than ever before.”

I am hopeful that the connections and partnerships that were forged during this period will remain intact, and the next calamity won’t catch us quite so unawares. Although this whole event has been traumatizing, it has only strengthened our resolve to stick around. North Minneapolis is its own special kind of place, and sometimes being different and a bit rough around the edges means having to fend for yourself or working a little harder to get what you need from the powers that be.

North Minneapolis should continue the momentum that this tragic event has given us as a motivating force for positive change and community partnership, and rebuild this community. I hope that the organizations and individuals that rose to the occasion, such as Urban Homeworks and Kindred Kitchen, continue to become better organized and to grow. I hope to see our elected officials continue to visit and stay involved with the restoration process. I hope to see the churches, mosques, and community organizations that came together for the sake of the community continue to work together and keep the lines of communication open.

Rebuilding shouldn’t be just about removing tree stumps and reconstructing houses; it should be about continuing to gather together as a united community for the betterment of our neighborhoods and for each other. We have all seen the spark of compassion and unity that this tragedy ignited, and we have seen the amazing spirit of this community when it comes together for a common purpose. Now we face the task of keeping that spark lit, that spirit alive.

Ray and Angie Camper live in North Minneapolis with their son, Milo.