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North Minneapolis tornado victims have been forgotten

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.

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 MplsTornado.info 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.

"They're trying to make us homeless when we don't have to be homeless," says Thornton, who refused to take his family to an overcrowded shelter after the storm.

Thornton also knew that the orange sticker on his front door was a beacon to looters, who in the days after the storm stole an air conditioner from the house across the street. From other damaged homes, thieves made off with televisions, computers, and other valuable property.

Not until September did the streetlights on Thornton's block of Logan Avenue return (before the tornado there were six; now there are three). All summer he worried about his children and girlfriend walking outside at night.

"On the North Side there's always the potential for danger," he warns with a serious stare. "The devil is still after us."

"Life isn't easy, but my kids keep me going."

Natasha Mitchell has not been as fortunate as Thornton. The cozy home she rented on the 4000 block of Colfax Avenue, which was set off the street and featured a tree-filled front yard, was hit so hard by the storm and subsequent rains that water seemed to penetrate every corner of the house. Soon the mold took over and exacerbated her already poor health.

Mitchell, 38, suffers from lupus, spinalstenosis, and arthritis, which have made her unable to work for over a year: Her last job was at the makeup counter at Macy's in Brookdale. After the tornado, her doctor found a blue lining on the inside of her nose, likely caused by the mold in the house. He encouraged Mitchell and her two children to leave immediately, but they had nowhere to go. Instead they threw away their mattresses and anything damaged by mold.

Despite the extensive damage, Mitchell's landlord played hardball and continued to charge her rent. Meanwhile, a Hennepin County sheriff posted notice that she had to vacate the house on Colfax, but Mitchell wasn't willing to move into a shelter because of her health conditions.

When the landlord took her to court, Mitchell sought out Drew Schaffer at the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis for help. Natasha's problems with the landlord ultimately helped her acquire a tornado displacement voucher, though she wasn't able to find any more Section 8 housing in north Minneapolis, so she settled for a home in Robbinsdale.

"I left my comfort zone, and my friends and neighbors who look out for me," Mitchell sighs.

She sleeps on a mattress in the living room, where bottles of pills line the floor in front of her. She estimates she takes 50 different kinds of medication, and some days she doesn't even have the energy to venture outside.

"Life isn't easy, but my kids keep me going," Mitchell says as she forces a weak smile. "If it weren't for those two, I don't know how I'd make it. I should be taking care of them, not them taking care of me."

Her 11-year-old son Philip and 9-year-old daughter Kemya are both in school, though she can tell they've struggled to stay focused since the tornado. Philip has developed ADHD, and Kemya was recently suspended for fighting with the principal.

"I see a difference in them this school year," says Mitchell, citing the trauma of the tornado and the move from their familiar neighborhood. "They don't say it, but I can tell they are struggling."

"You can't eat a bus card."

The tornado damaged the buildings on either side of Anthony and Shemeika Strong's apartment building much worse than it did their home. A few bricks peeled off the east wall, and several windows shattered, but their own apartment on the second floor suffered no harm.

Anthony believes that the looting of the Broadway Liquor Outlet six blocks away on the corner of Broadway and Penn, just 10 minutes after the storm—together with allegations of gang activity next to his building—prompted Minneapolis police to forcibly vacate the apartment buildings after the tornado.

A police spokeswoman confirms that officers were given orders to evacuate all three buildings, where they found fallen bricks, glass, tree limbs, separated window casements, and "occupants partying and barbecuing in front of the building." The residents of 2509 Golden Valley didn't want to leave, and they argued with the officers. Some occupants stayed inside and locked their doors.

 

The police called in the SWAT team, which began to break doors and clear the building immediately. A 30-minute call to vacate the premises turned into a five-minute order: "Leave now and board the vans bound for the shelter, or face arrest."

Anthony and Shemeika were taken to the North Commons community center, where the Red Cross converted the gymnasium into a temporary shelter with hundreds of cots lining the floor. After a couple of weeks they moved into a hotel room in Brooklyn Center, where their bill was covered and where they were given bus cards, but no money to buy food or clothing.

"What am I gonna do with a bus card?" Anthony asks, incredulously. "We ride around on the bus, but what are we gonna do once we get there? You can't eat a bus card!"

Frustrated by the lack of help from the powers that be, Anthony and Shemeika moved back into their apartment building, at their landlord's urging, two months after the tornado. Anthony became the building's de facto superintendent and custodian, installing new windows and doors himself, and salvaging anything from the building that hadn't been looted following the forced eviction.

Clothing, CDs, and a TV were lost to vandals. The five minutes that police had given them to vacate the building wasn't enough time to secure their valuables.

"We're using our Social Security money to buy back those household items," said Anthony. "It's gonna be a tough Christmas."

"Response worse than Katrina."

Pauline Turner owns the dubious distinction of surviving two natural disasters that were followed by controversial relief efforts. She lived in Woodville, Mississippi, in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast. Turner was able to remain in her home but was cut off from sources of employment and food. Instead, she survived off the services provided by FEMA.

"There were FEMA tents everywhere: You could go to the Red Cross, or get food stamps, or mental help—whatever you needed," Turner recalls while taking a drag from a cigarette. "But here the food stamps were only for those who were already receiving them. They should have had boxes of food here for us."

Looking haggard and exhausted in clothes that appear too big for her, Turner says she's considering giving up on Minneapolis and moving back to the Gulf Coast.

"They gave us sandwiches and a pat on the back and left."

For a month after the tornado, Leonard Searcy, his mother, and his kids continued to live in a house on Knox and Lowry, even though the windows were broken and the gas was turned off. Their landlord forced Searcy's mom to pay rent, under threat of court action.

"Not only was [the delinquent landlord] an injustice to us, but to this neighborhood," says the 22-year-old, who describes how he and his mother boiled water on the stove to wash themselves.

Searcy says the city, the county, and the nonprofits established to serve north Minneapolis also failed him and his family. "The individual aid never came through. But the money was given to nonprofits that came here and gave us sandwiches and a pat on the back and then left."

The landlord finally kicked them out of the house in September, Searcy says, after the city pressured him to make the necessary repairs. "He wanted us out so he wouldn't have to fix the place. He knows that north Minneapolis is changing, and if he sits on the house, its value is gonna rise."

With nowhere else to go, Searcy, his mom, and the kids now live with his sister in a house on Herschel Street near University Avenue in St. Paul. The neighborhood is completely new to him since he had never lived anywhere but north Minneapolis. Fifteen people now share that home: four adults and 11 kids. The house has four bedrooms, but in actuality, nearly every inch of available space is used for sleeping quarters. When he's not working a third shift processing film at a job in New Brighton, Searcy shares a couch with his three-year-old son and one-year-old daughter.

He worries about the children, who have had to move four times since the tornado, and alternate between their mother in Coon Rapids and wherever Searcy is staying at the time.

"There's no structure in their lives," he says. "Lots of construction and deconstruction has gotten the kids off balance."

The kids are also noticeably scared whenever inclement weather approaches. They think the tornado is returning to hurt them.

"I try to calm them and tell them that weather patterns are different, but they're afraid of dark clouds."

"This was two weeks after the tornado, and they're worried about deck railings."

 

When Marie and Michael Porter bought a house with a hot tub in the bedroom in March, for just $45,000, they thought they'd hit the jackpot. Two months later, the north Minneapolis tornado uprooted the big walnut tree in their backyard and threw it into the house, lifted the roof and dropped it back down, and sent three of the neighbor's trees through the walls like spears. One tree landed in the cats' litter box. The Porters hadn't even finished moving in when the storm struck.

On Sunday, May 22, Marie, a cookbook author and native of Winnipeg, Canada, and Michael, a technician at Boston Scientific, were in nearby Brooklyn Park when they received a call from their alarm company that there was reportedly a fire in their basement. Worried about the four cats, they hurried home only to realize that it wasn't a fire, but a tornado that had descended on their neighborhood. They were able to drive within three blocks of their house, then sprinted the rest, scrambling over downed trees, branches, and power lines.

And that was only the beginning of the nightmare.

"The city has been so blazingly incompetent, it's like they're working against progress in north Minneapolis," says Marie. "I've had to fight with them repeatedly."

The city held a volunteer day soon after the storm and moved all of the debris on the Porters' property to the backyard. But they never came back to remove it entirely. The couple did that themselves.

Since they had moved into the house only two months prior, not all of the inspections were complete. The railings on the deck, for example, weren't up to code. Two weeks after the tornado, the Porters received a letter from the city stating that they had until the end of the month to bring the railings into compliance "or face civil or criminal charges." The only problem was that the tornado had blown away the entire deck.

"It was an automatic letter, claiming they'd sent an inspector to our home, which they hadn't," recalls Marie, seething. "This was two weeks after the tornado, and they're worried about deck railings. No one thought to put a stop to those notices."

"We are tornado victims. We should be getting help."

Dennis and Deborah Parker have put in years of hard work at their jobs, faithfully paid their taxes, and rarely asked for help. But earlier this year they lost their jobs.

When the tornado destroyed their rental home, their family of seven was forced to seek refuge in the local Armory and at the North Commons Recreation Center. For weeks, they and their five children slept on cots on the floor of a gymnasium. But with five children—one of whom is 21 and has a mental disability—they found that the shelters offered by the city weren't the right fit. Instead they spent weeks in limbo in an extended-stay hotel room in Brooklyn Center.

"It's kind of hard to find housing when you have a large family," says Deborah, noting that it would mean abandoning their eldest son to the street.

Dennis and Deborah boasted long histories of stable employment before the storm. He was a welder and a restaurant cook. She worked in the hotel industry for more than 15 years and was a manager of major hotels. "I have paid taxes," Deborah says. "I didn't ask the state for anything—until the storm."

"We are tornado victims," adds Dennis. "We should be getting help.... To make a long story short, nothing is happening."

"I feel stuck in a rut."

A couple of days after the tornado, Tiffany's house began to smell bad. She and her fiancé, Jeff, investigated and realized the problem wasn't a backed-up sewer system, but rather a faulty pipe that had been cracked when a tree fell on it. Now, whenever a toilet was flushed in the house, raw sewage would dump out the ceiling and into the basement.

Tiffany and Jeff called a city inspector but received no response. Their landlord wouldn't reply either. A neighbor told them that the smell of feces was routine in that house. Inspectors didn't condemn the house until June 8, two and a half weeks after the tornado.

The couple and Tiffany's boys, ages seven and three, left that night and tried to move into a shelter together. But since they weren't married, and since the shelter was nearly full, it couldn't legally take Jeff—who had to sneak in and avoid detection.

After two weeks of sleeping on cots on the gym floor at North Commons, Tiffany and Jeff learned that they could stay for four months, rent free, in a home at 14th and Upton that attorney Larry Shapiro had opened up to homeless north Minneapolis residents. Those four months ended on October 31.

 

"This has been a wonderful house, with brand new stuff," recalls Tiffany. "It let me know what the standards are."

Tiffany won $1,600 from her landlord in reconciliation court, but he has not paid her the amount yet. Both she and Jeff are jobless: She has worked as a caretaker for handicapped children, and Jeff's work at a rehab center ended when the state government shut down in July. They've pursued various employment agencies, but to no avail, leaving Tiffany and Jeff nearly broke and practically homeless.

Tiffany has decided to move back to Chicago, where she came from in 2005, and live with her mom. Tiffany says that her priority is for the boys not to miss any school, and she wants to get them into a stable home.

"I've always had jobs and been self-sufficient," Tiffany says. "But now I feel categorized as a stereotypical black female. I feel stuck in a rut."

Mark N. Kartarik

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