North Minneapolis tornado victims have been forgotten

Officials moved on, but neighborhood never got help

Today, the corner of Broadway and Penn avenues in the heart of north Minneapolis is a study in contrasts. Shrimp fly off the fryer and into hungry mouths on busy weekends at El Amin's Fish House, which has remained open since the May 22 tornado. But next door, Broadway Liquor Outlet is boarded up and covered with graffiti. All of the building's upstairs windows are broken, and the roof looks like bomb wreckage. Behind the liquor store, a head-high pile of rubble competes for attention with a solitary "Nice Ride" bicycle parking space.

The tornado that ravaged north Minneapolis six months ago was cruelly selective as it followed its diagonal northeasterly path of destruction. While some buildings were destroyed, others next door were left nearly untouched. The wind uprooted trees, tore roofs off homes, killed two residents, made thousands homeless, and caused hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of damage.

And the storm couldn't have chosen a more unfortunate place to wreak its havoc. North Minneapolis was already home to the city's most depressed and dangerous neighborhoods. In this largely African-American pocket, 31 percent of the 60,000 residents live in poverty, and nearly 80 percent receive assistance from Hennepin County.

Mark N. Kartarik
DeWayne Thornton and his family stayed in their home, which was condemned by the city even though it was structurally sound
Mark N. Kartarik
DeWayne Thornton and his family stayed in their home, which was condemned by the city even though it was structurally sound

The home foreclosure crisis following the 2008 economic recession disproportionately affected north Minneapolis, leaving empty homes. Those who rent often deal with inattentive or slum landlords.

These challenges add up to what local activists called the "storm before the storm" and made the destruction from the skies on that otherwise quiet Sunday in May a nearly insurmountable challenge to overcome.

To make matters worse, the twister that hit Joplin, Missouri, that same day overshadowed the damage in north Minneapolis—it killed 162 and was ruled the deadliest tornado nationwide in 60 years. The city of Minneapolis received no Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) money from a national government obsessed with cutting budgets.

Here at home, local media focused briefly on the plight of north Minneapolis, but then quickly moved on to the state government shutdown, which began a month and a half after the storm and threatened to hinder the local government's response.

Once the city had cleared the streets of debris and moved those made homeless by the tornado into temporary shelters, the recovery effort began to creep forward. A coalition of 60 nonprofits and aid organizations formed the Northside Community Response Team (NCRT) to assess and target needs and distribute $1.3 million raised by the Minneapolis Foundation.

But by the end of the summer, most of that money was still sitting in church coffers and hadn't aided tornado victims.

Critics in north Minneapolis say the response by the city, Hennepin County, and NCRT was grossly ineffective. Victims were kept in overcrowded shelters for weeks after the storm; too many calls to the NCRT's aid hotline went unanswered; residents who flocked to a disaster recovery center encountered not food or hygienic necessities but informational brochures telling them where they could go downtown for help; orange "condemned" stickers were slapped liberally on doors of some homes that were still livable; mold grew on walls and ceilings of damaged homes that were still occupied, and tree stumps lingered on north Minneapolis streets, now naked to the sky above.

Meanwhile, the community itself stepped up to the plate. Activist Peter Kerre established the website and the "North Minneapolis Post Tornado watch" Facebook page, which served as a local resource for affected residents, matching particular needs with those who could solve them. He helped put the onus on companies such as Xcel Energy and Qwest Communications to restore electricity and phone service in north Minneapolis.

"The city was spending too much time telling the media how great the relief effort had been rather than focusing on the community," says Kerre. "They were only clearing debris but not focusing on humanitarian efforts. I wanted us first to focus on human life, before anything else."

Six months after the May 22 tornado, the lives of many north Minneapolis residents are still in disarray.

"They're trying to make us homeless."

DeWayne Thornton's block on Logan Avenue, just south of Lowry, was lush with foliage before the storm. Now it looks post-apocalyptic with the jagged skeletons of a few surviving trees pointing toward the open sky. Dark blue tarps flutter in the wind where damaged roofs haven't been fixed in advance of the coming winter, and the house just across the street was recently demolished, leaving a vacant lot.

Days after the tornado, the squat and powerfully built 41-year-old, who currently works as a forklift driver at King Solutions in the suburb of Dayton, says the city slapped an orange "condemned" sticker on his front door. The storm had blown out the master bedroom's windows and soaked everything, ripped shingles off the roof, and demolished his garage behind the house. But the structure of the house was sound, and after Thornton's landlord paid contractors to fix the windows and shingles, he expected the city to remove the orange sticker.

No one came. Thornton says he hasn't seen inspectors from the city visit his home since FEMA officially denied aid to north Minneapolis tornado victims on June 14. And so Thornton, his girlfriend, and their two children broke the law and stayed in the house, where they've lived ever since.

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