Abdi Warsame had hoped to rest at home on New Year’s Day. Then his phone rang at 8:30 in the morning.
“Cedar is on fire!” said a man in Somali.
Minutes later, the new City Council member for Minneapolis’ Sixth Ward was standing in front of a century-old building ablaze in Cedar-Riverside, where he would soon learn that 14 people were injured and an immigrant-owned grocery store had been destroyed.
Authorities continue to investigate the cause of the blast that killed three people, and have officially identified two of the dead men.
On the frigid Wednesday morning of the fire, Warsame experienced conflicting emotions: shock at the damage and injuries, but also relief that the fire had struck a smaller area and not spread to Riverside Plaza, where thousands of East African immigrants live.
He raced over so quickly that he forgot his gloves and hat in the subzero cold. Luckily, outgoing Mayor R.T. Rybak was also on the scene and lent him ear muffs.
For a council member who had not yet even been inaugurated, it was trial by fire — literally.
Before so much as attending a City Council meeting, Warsame has visited victims in the hospital, posted updates on Facebook, helped assuage concerned citizens in Somali and English, faced TV cameras, and worked with other Minneapolis leaders on solutions.
Warsame defeated longtime Council Member Robert Lilligren in a landslide in November, becoming the first Somali-American on the City Council and reflecting the city’s increased population of East African immigrants. He will be inaugurated Monday with the other six new council members, who have spent the days leading up to their formal swearing-in on more traditional activities, like settling into their transitional offices.
U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison noted Warsame’s role during a news conference Thursday, just before Warsame spoke to the crowd.
“He doesn’t need to be sworn in to be an active representative of this community,” said Ellison.
During the conference, Warsame translated an opening statement from Cherie Penn, the fire department’s public information officer, and also thanked the firefighters.
“There is no more noble task than saving lives,” he said. “I can assure you they saved a great deal of lives.”
It didn’t hurt that Warsame received a few pointers from Rybak at the scene on New Year’s. The public relations-savvy former mayor advised him what to say to the media and how to convey to the victims at the hospital that he was there only to support and pray for them and not to discuss other issues.
Warsame reached out to George Sherman, owner of Riverside Plaza, to have him free up space for any victims who wanted to stay in the towers. He also called Park Board Chairman John Erwin to have the Brian Coyle Center opened for news conferences and prayers (a nearby mosque was damaged in the fire).
He said that even though Jan. 1 “was the worst day,” it also gave him a chance to see how the city works. Responding to such an incident “is the best way to get focused,” Warsame said. □