North Minneapolis tornado toll: $166 million and likely to rise

  • Article by: BILL MCAULIFFE, STEVE BRANDT and RICHARD MERYHEW , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 23, 2011 - 11:30 PM

Cleanup is just the start of the work needed

As they walked through the rubble of the worst tornado to hit Minneapolis in 30 years, city officials said Monday that the toll of the devastation is at least $166 million and likely to rise as they fully assess just how many homes and businesses have been damaged or destroyed.

Under mostly sunny skies, hundreds of residents left homeless by Sunday's tornado sifted through the ruins of their homes and neighborhood amid a treacherous landscape of downed trees and power lines.

More than 600 buildings will need major repairs and 35 homes were so badly damaged that they can no longer be occupied, city officials said.

After touring the area with Mayor R.T. Rybak and other leaders, Gov. Mark Dayton called the situation a "terrible tragedy" and said the state will offer whatever help north Minneapolis needs to recover, including a special session to consider disaster aid.

"God bless the lives of those who have been affected," said Dayton, who toured the North Side with U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, House Speaker Kurt Zellers, state Sen. Linda Higgins, City Council President Barb Johnson and other council members.

Federal Emergency Management Administration representatives also were assessing the damage from the biggest tornado to hit the city since June 14, 1981, when one hit Edina, Minneapolis and Roseville, killing one person and injuring 83.

As residents of one of Minneapolis' poorest neighborhoods cleaned up, the toll was becoming more clear. "I saw people whose lives have been twisted just like their homes," Klobuchar said.

The storm killed one person, and a second man died while helping neighbors clean up. Forty-eight people were injured, none seriously.

Floyd D. Whitfield, 59, died when a tree fell on his car a few blocks from his north Minneapolis home, the Hennepin County medical examiner said. Another north Minneapolis resident, Robert D. MacIntyre, 53, died after suffering a heart attack while helping neighbors. He was board president of the nonprofit Raptor Resource Project.

The City Council set an emergency session for 9:30 a.m. Tuesday to extend the state of emergency. That action will trigger the city's request for outside disaster declarations and aid.

By midday Monday, police said there was no need to continue the curfew. Nevertheless, they continued to patrol the areas hardest hit, allowing only residents to enter.

Most power was expected to be restored by midnight Monday. All of the schools closed will reopen Tuesday except for Plymouth Youth Center, which remains closed because of power outages. Buses will run as normal Tuesday.

About 2,000 trees -- many of them streetside giants -- also were destroyed, leaving once-shaded city blocks looking vulnerable in the sunlight.

National Weather Service teams hope to determine a damage rating Tuesday for the tornado that traveled 14 miles from St. Louis Park to Blaine. The rating will be either EF1 or EF2, indicating damage from winds of 86 to 135 miles per hour, said Todd Krause, warning coordination meteorologist for the agency's Twin Cities office.

The tornado, one of three in the Twin Cities on Sunday, was among more than a dozen spawned by a system that swirled around the Great Plains, killing at least 116 people in Joplin, Mo.

In the Twin Cities, the twisters were the worst possible outcome given Sunday's conditions, said Kenny Blumenfeld, a visiting professor of geography at the University of Minnesota who studies tornadoes in metro areas.

The temperature at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport was 66 -- unusually low for tornadoes, which require significant heat-driven updrafts.

Yet in a year in which tornadoes have killed hundreds of people in U.S. cities, the Twin Cities might also have been fortunate there were not more fatalities. Tornadoes of even minor intensity kill at least one person in 85 percent of their encounters with cities of at least 100,000 people, he said.

"This was not a high-end event," he added, comparing it with the Joplin tornado. But whenever a tornado hits a populated area, he said, "the results are never good."

'A huge blow' to the area

Some city officials said they feared the damage to the North Side will intensify pressure on an area where housing options have dwindled because of foreclosures and boarded housing. "This is a huge blow to the people of north Minneapolis, a place where people have real needs," Rybak said.

Officials helped move some of nearly 400 people, many of them children, out of a temporary shelter at the northeast Minneapolis armory. Several dozen families were moved into the Drake Hotel, a former homeless shelter downtown.

While the storm's impact was greatest in Minneapolis, damage also was reported in several suburbs.

In St. Louis Park, a tree blew through the window of Lisa and Victor Valdez's second-story condo. "It was the shock of my life," Lisa Valdez said.

Parts of Fridley resembled a war zone, with uprooted trees and broken branches crowding many yards.

Cleanup was easier in Forest Lake, where the tornado touched down twice but did little damage, police Sgt. Greg Weiss said. Of greater concern to Washington County officials was determining why sirens failed to sound in the Forest Lake area when a tornado warning was issued.

Officials traced the problem to a failure in equipment that transmits signals to sirens, Chief Deputy Dan Starry said. But the tornado hit twice in Forest Lake before the county was able to sound sirens from a secondary tower. The county was working with the equipment vendor and will test sirens at 1 p.m. Wednesday.

Star Tribune staff writers Paul Walsh, Rachel Stassen-Berger, Tom Meersman, Anthony Lonetree, Randy Furst, Paul Levy, Corey Mitchell, Kevin Giles, Rose French and Kevin Duchschere contributed to this report.

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