Tornado recovery, six months later


This past August, returning to Minneapolis from a family reunion, I had the opportunity to view our beautiful city from the sky. I was struck by the lushness of our forested city and then I saw it. First I noticed Lake Calhoun and the connecting Chain of Lakes. My mind quickly turned the ground to orient it to the north, and I saw the path. It was as if a giant lawnmower had gone astray on a direct northeast path through North Minneapolis; corner to corner. It was a stark reminder of what was below. 

It’s been six months since the tornado ripped through our community and things are getting better. But “better” is relative to the person experiencing it and unlike the tornado’s zealous speed of destruction, “better” has a slower pace. I make a point of driving to parts of the “diagonal” (my term for the tornado’s path) frequently to stay connected to the whole transformation in our community. 

This is bigger than my personal tornado experience, or my neighbor’s hole in their roof, or the five trees that came down in Kate’s yard, or even the 110 trees lost in Webber Park. This is about the family that is still living in a hotel, with their baby and three children, hoping to be home by Christmas. And another family who went home after five months in a hotel, hoping to get back to their “normal” life, yet they are still eating out each day as they wait for their insurance company to pay for repairs or replacements of damaged kitchen appliances. It’s about the now-homeless renter, who lost everything, because she didn’t have renters insurance. It is about the child who still wakes up at night when the wind blows hard and calls out for his mother, and the woman who clung to her chimney as the tornado tore through her house and says matter-of-factly, “I am still wounded.” This is about businesses across the diagonal that are still not open, some that do not even appear to be getting repaired, and the people who are left wondering which ones will reopen and which ones will not. This is about the future health and well being of our community.  

I recently met with Chad Schwitter, one of the Core Team members of the Northside Tornado Response Team (NCRT) and director of Urban Homeworks. Prior to the tornado, Chad was busy with the work of revitalizing our community by purchasing foreclosed properties, making quality repairs and then strengthening the neighborhood where the homes were purchased. He does this by providing quality rentals, encouraging committed residents to move into the community through a program he calls Urban Neighbors, and providing opportunities for low to moderate income families to purchase a home. Chad is a Victory Neighborhood resident and he grew up on a farm. He said when the tornado hit, he didn’t hesitate to step-up and do what he could. As the lead person on the NCRT Housing Taskforce he helped rebuild our community, in part, by organizing thousands of volunteers to help with the debris clean-up, the initial tarping of roofs, responding to emergency needs, and helping with identified demolition and house repairs. In the first phase of NCRT efforts, $92,000 was spent to help 44 uninsured and underinsured homeowners with emergency tarping, tree removal, boarding broken windows, and making electrical reconnections. The NCRT has moved forward with the second phase of the recovery efforts and 100 percent of the work is being done by minority and locally owned contractors.   

In September the City’s Department of Regulatory Services completed a detailed exterior inspection of 3600 tornado damaged properties. They reported that 232 homes still had tarps on the roofs. The City and the NCRT are working collaboratively by going door-to-door to talk with residents who still have damage in an effort to get repairs done before winter. They hope to help connect homeowners with available resources in order to get the work done. More than $24.5 million worth of tornado related construction permits had been pulled by the end of October.  

One of the bleak realities of the tornado has been the deforestation along the tornado’s path. In addition to the hundreds of trees lost in people’s yards, the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board (MPRB) reported that 2,600 boulevard trees were lost, including 120 in Folwell Park and 110 in Webber Park. A significant number of trees were also lost in North Mississippi Regional Park and Theodore Wirth Park. In October the MPRB began replacing lost trees by planting 250 trees in Folwell Park. Knutson Construction contributed equipment, employee volunteers and 100 trees to replant the park. People for Parks, and a charitable bequest by the Carl T. Remick  Jr. estate, contributed $5000 for 50 trees. 120 trees were donated by the U of M and 30 different varieties were planted. The Knutson and Park Board employees were joined by Folwell neighborhood residents, and 100 5th-8th grade students from the Sojourner Truth Academy. MPRP Commissioner Jon Olson has plans for planting 3,000 trees in North Minneapolis in the spring of 2012. The replanting of Webber Park trees will be incorporated into the Webber Park Master Plan.  

I just went back to the southwest corner of the tornado’s path of destruction, at Glenwood and Theodore Wirth Pkwy. As I looked northeast, I saw the hole, still visible across the lake, like a window into the Homewood neighborhood. I imagine it will be like that for a number of years. Unlike the indiscriminate and destructive power of the tornado, recovery is slow but hopefully steady. Many of the mansions on Washburn still don tarps. As I drove northeast along the diagonal I noticed houses that have not been repaired at all, looking as if the tornado just came through yesterday. Other homes were in the midst of significant reconstruction and still others beautifully redone—at least on the outside. A house on 15th and Upton, flattened by a monstrous cottonwood tree, has been demolished and the ground graded over. Surprisingly, a house on 38th and Colfax, which also had a large tree crushing it, has been beautifully rebuilt. If spring weather was unfair to North Minneapolis, the long dry autumn has been merciful for re-construction. There is still much work to be done before the winter comes. Remember your neighbors.

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