Hope, Despair Mark Minneapolis Tornado Anniversary

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The tornado that roared through North Minneapolis a year ago uprooted trees, homes and families. The year-long struggle for recovery has occasionally been covered by the local legacy media, but has been a constant focus of our coverage here at The UpTake.

As The UpTake’s year-long Northside Project reporting has shown, this neighborhood had many problems before the tornado hit, some which the storm made worse, others the tornado could ultimately be the catalyst to solve.

The UpTake’s team coverage of the anniversary has captured both the hope that city and community leaders are selling as well as the quiet despair of those who bear the emotional and economic scars of twin storms that randomly blew into theirs lives.

Victim of the storms: natural and man made

The tornado hit as many northsiders were struggling to keep their homes. More than 50 percent of homes in some north side zip codes have gone through foreclosure. Gwendolyn Onunah Onikoro who has lived in the neighborhood almost her entire life was one of those who was hit by both storms: the tornado and the economy. Now she’s been forced out of her home.

The UpTake’s Allison Herrera has a gripping story about Onikoro’s fight with TCF Bank in the wake of the tornado disaster. While TCF says it has done all it can, and non-profit groups have tried to intervene, it’s hard to understand why more couldn’t have been done to help someone who was overwhelmed with medical, economic and disaster related problems.

Other northsiders such as Natasha Mitchell also had to leave the place they love, settling in suburban Robinsdale, but yearning to go back to the place they consider home.

Even for homeowners who had the economic resources to stay and make the repairs, the road to recovery has been a frustrating one. Eric Reichwald has been fighting with Allstate insurance and contractors for a year.

“A person like me with a graduate degree, good political connections, money, resources, lawyers, has to fight the way that I’ve had to fight? Let me just tell you, most of my neighbors took the first check they got from their insurance company…boom three days later the roof was on. Contractors were gone. Well, now people have leaking roofs, ceilings caving in, water running down the insides of their walls and no call backs from their (insurance) adjustors,” said Reichwald while standing in his north Minneapolis home.

“If my insurance company, with my policy, with my background, can treat me so poorly…you know what is a mom going to do with four kids working full-time…trying to take care of her family?”

One group trying to make sure that northsiders don’t get the short-shrift on repairs is “Rebuild it Right”, which has been providing free architect services to tornado victims and helping them advocate to get insurance companies to pay for appropriate quality repairs. “Quality was taken out so quality should be put back in,” says architect Alissa Lipke-Pier.

Other groups have made a difference in the recovery. The Jordan Area Community Council has focused on helping renters. Robert McClennon’s home was uninsured when the storm was hit, but it’s been repaired thanks to help from Habitat for Humanity. Both groups helped organized a “Rebuild Block Party” this past weekend to celebrate what has been done and focus on the rebuilding that still has to be done.

A year later, much of the major damage has been repaired. But the scars of the tornado are everywhere along the tornado’s path. Blue tarps still cover the roofs of houses that have yet to be repaired. And the canopy of leaves that normally shades the streets will not return for years even as trees are replanted by the hundreds.

Despite the damage to his home, Dewayne Thornton has stayed put and turned adversity into opportunity starting a “poor man’s moving company” that relocates a up to five rooms of furniture for a flat $250 fee.

To mark the anniversary, students and staff at Lucy Craft Laney Elementary School released 200 balloons. School administrators said it was to symbolically free the children from the pain the community has felt for the last year. Children vividly remember that day and the mark it has left on their neighborhood and their life.

“I was sad that my friends moved away ’cause one of my friends, Olivia, she moved away from a yellow house,” one little girl told The UpTake. “She lives in a hotel now. She used to come to this school but then she stopped coming.”

Watching the children on the playground of the elementary school Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak recalled walking through the neighborhood a year ago — fearing that trees had crushed many people in their homes. Luckily there weren’t massive casualties from the 2011 tornado, but the emotional scars will be slow to heal.

“We have to keep doing the houses and businesses. We’ve done thousands and we’ll have to do more,” said Mayor Rybak. “But we also have to focus on the huge amount of pain that people carry around every day, but also the huge amount of renewed confidence that people have.”

The UpTake has been following the tornado recovery for the past year filing more than 30 stories on this neighborhood’s struggle for recovery. You can find an archive of our Northside Project stories here. Many thanks to Jacob Wheeler, Allison Herrera, Chuck Olsen, Matt Johnson, Nick Coleman, and Demae DeRocher for their work on covering this story so far.

More statistics on the city’s recovery from the tornado can be found here.

Michael McIntee

Michael McIntee is a former network TV news executive with more than 30 years of broadcasting experience. He began his broadcasting career at the University of Minnesota's student radio station. He is an expert producer, writer, video editor who has a fondness for new technology but denies that he is a geek. More about Michael McIntee »

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