With block after block of homes renovated or undergoing major repairs, city officials are expressing optimism these days about the prospects for north Minneapolis in the aftermath of last May's tornado.

"Visually, aside from the lack of trees, it looks better," City Council President Barb Johnson said after a Thursday event that coincided with a statewide Tornado Drill Day designed to help Minnesotans prepare for tornado season. "There are new roofs, new siding, stucco, lots of new garages."

There's also a sense of pride in the amount of community cooperation at the city and state level, along with the infusion of funds from nonprofit groups and the work of thousands of volunteers.

Yet major problems remain, including high levels of poverty and unemployment that officials say they believe are essentially unchanged since before the tornado struck. Some tornado-ravaged buildings have been abandoned or remain unrepaired. Some residents who were displaced by the tornado have moved away. There are empty lots where homes have been demolished, and many blocks are nearly devoid of trees. In back yards, there are splintered and broken trees.

Officials and neighbor leaders talked about the North Side in interviews following a news conference by Mayor R.T. Rybak and state Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman as part of Severe Storm Awareness week that continues through Friday. Schools, businesses hospitals and other organizations practice emergency plans during two drills Thursday afternoon and evening. Earlier in the week, state officials had reminded Minnesotans about taking cover during storm warnings and touted new automatic notifications.

In north Minneapolis, Rybak and Rothman urged homeowners to make sure they have homeowners insurance that covers storm damage.

They stood in front of the newly repaired home of Mary Ann Schissler at 3711 Emerson Av. N. When the tornado roared through on May 22, 2011, two trees crushed her roof and caused major structural damage.

Before the tornado, Schissler's insurance company had threatened a big rate increase, so she had let it lapse while she sought an alternative. She said she signed up for a new "bare bones" policy two weeks before the tornado hit.

It covered $91,800 of her $100,000 in repairs. Without the insurance, she said, she would have lost the house.

"It's a reminder to be prepared," Rothman said. He also recommended homeowners complete a home inventory of their property in case disaster strikes.

A total of 2,847 tornado-related repair permits have been issued, according to a city memorandum this month. Some $28.2 million in repairs have been made or are under way and homeowners have received $1.9 million in assistance through loans and other help from the city, state, federal government and nonprofits.

Down the street from Schissler's home, a blue tarp covered part of one home's damaged roof, and, one street over, one could see a badly damaged home that Johnson said has been condemned and will be demolished.

Across the street and a few doors down, Margaret Stephens peered out her front door. She said she lost a roof and a chimney in the twister and had no insurance because her husband was disabled and they had major debts. But she said Habitat for Humanity repaired her home for free and she has insurance now.

Ishmael Israel, director of the North Side Residents Redevelopment Council, which covers the Willard Hay and Near North neighborhoods, concurred that there have been some "positives" for the North Side.

"A lot of deferred maintenance was addressed," he said. But some residents left damaged homes, and neighbors don't know where they went, he said.

"It was an amazing coming together of the city and nonprofits," said Polly Peterson, chair of the housing and community development committee of the Jordan Area Community Council. She added, "It's still a tough neighborhood, a lot of unemployed and poor people."

Residents and city officials lament the loss of trees. About 6,000 park and boulevard trees were destroyed by the tornado, along with many trees on private property, the city says.

The Minneapolis Park Board will plant 3,100 trees on boulevards and 400 free trees will be made available this spring to property owners.

Randy Furst • 612-673-4224