Volunteers offered their hands, backs and hearts - gifts sometimes more powerful than backhoes and saws.
As she surveyed her tornado-ripped neighborhood Saturday, longtime north Minneapolis resident Michele Livingston said she believes that the disaster ultimately will lead to the rebuilding not just of homes and boulevards, but also of perceptions.
"There's an attitude of not feeling counted and included," said Livingston, 50. "[But today] the North Side is really overwhelmed by all the love and volunteerism."
Two weeks after the tornado ravaged homes and businesses and claimed two lives in the already economically challenged area, people's spirits -- like their neighborhoods -- were on the mend Saturday as 2,000 eager volunteers bused in by the city fanned out for its final organized cleanup.
In eight hours, they bagged up 180,000 pounds of shingles, shattered window panes and other construction debris. They piled large branches along curbs to be picked up later. They swept streets of rubble and dirt.
And they brought compassion.
"People just want to know there's hope and that people care," volunteer Therese Gilbertson said as she scooped twigs into a garbage bag. "It's hard asking for help."
After volunteering with previous tornado cleanups in St. Peter and Rogers, Gilbertson didn't hesitate to drive 47 miles from her Zimmerman home to help with this one.
"This could happen to any of us," she said. "You meet people and they're all here for the same reason ... to just help the community."
When volunteer Jerry Keller of Brooklyn Center was dropped off by his childhood home on Willow Avenue N., he didn't recognize the once-wooded street, now nearly treeless. "I didn't know where I was at first."
Many of the volunteers were metro area residents eager to lend a hand to neighbors in need. Some were part of church groups that snatched up dozens of the 2,000 volunteer spots. And some, many of them suburban residents, had never before set foot in north Minneapolis.
'This is our home'
According to the city, more than 3,700 properties were damaged by the May 22 EF1 tornado, which cut a diagonal path through the heart of the area. About 150 were left uninhabitable, and more than 270 sustained structural damage that will require extensive repair. Businesses were crippled, and Wirth Park, the area's beloved wild greenway, lost hundreds of giant trees.
But the most heart-rending damage was inflicted on the area's residents, many of them low-income homeowners and renters. Those who weren't left homeless found themselves living in battered homes with debris-strewn yards.
"The bright side is there will be homes that will be fixed up," resident Barry Hoppe said Saturday. He could barely see his lawn, tangled with fallen branches, but his home is relatively undamaged compared to that of his neighbor, who is without insurance to fix a ripped roof.
Some streets still have crushed cars and roofs, toppled trees and homes with windows boarded up. In the hardest-hit areas, wide tree stumps jut out of boulevards like grave markers for the big old trees that recently stood there.
But as broken as some neighborhoods were, optimism still prevailed for residents like Joyce Roufs.
She was without electricity, a garage and part of her roof on Queen Avenue N., where some of her neighbors' homes are likely to be demolished. But after living in north Minneapolis all 80 years of her life, "we're staying," she said. "This is our home. It's a good place. Everybody's working together on this."
Although it was by far the largest organized volunteer effort since the tornado, it wasn't the first; hundreds of volunteers showed up to help right after the storm in other more informal efforts. To prepare for Saturday's effort, heavy-equipment operators worked last week to clear the streets of massive tree trunks and heavier branches. Tree branches piled near curbs will continue to be picked up until June 10.
Although the event was billed as the city's final stage of debris removal, other organizations may be working with volunteers to continue cleanup efforts, city spokesman Matt Laible said.
'I thought I'd give back'
Sheri Richards and more than a dozen members of Hosanna Church in Lakeville were turned away from volunteering Saturday because the city already had the 2,000 volunteers needed. But they still found a way to help.
Toting a map and bags full of water bottles, they handed out water to volunteers and residents. The Salvation Army and Red Cross trucks also provided food and water. And Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison and several other politicians were on hand to thank volunteers.
But for many, a thank-you wasn't a priority.
With her mom and brother, Leslie Elks, 27, of St. Paul, picked up debris from a back yard of a homeowner who doesn't speak English.
"I couldn't donate any money, so I thought I'd give back" this way, she said.
"This is my hometown," said Renee Voca, who lives in Brooklyn Park but grew up six blocks from the hard-hit area near Dowling and Fremont Avenues N. "They need the help. If the circumstances were any different, I'd expect people to come from all over the place to help us."
Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141