Not waiting for FEMA aid

  • Article by: MATT MCKINNEY and TASNIM SHAMMA , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: June 28, 2011 - 10:26 PM

Residents of the tornado-stricken North Side hope the federal agency will reconsider disaster aid. But they don't expect it.

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Stacy Bondeson made her way to her garden and to watch construction of her new garage.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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Stung by the federal government's denial of individual aid to survivors of the May 22 tornado, residents of north Minneapolis said this week that they had little hope that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would reverse its decision.

FEMA officials toured the tornado zone last week, after the state appealed the agency's denial of an estimated $1.93 million in aid. The FEMA individual assistance money would help people pay for temporary housing, home repairs not covered by insurance, disaster-related medical and dental costs, clothing, tools, educational materials, vehicles ruined by the tornado, and moving and storage costs.

On a devastated block of Newton Avenue N., renter Tony Jackson said on Tuesday that many of his neighbors have fled homes that are still uninhabitable, a month after the tornado.

"How is this not no disaster? Come on now," Jackson said. "The spirit of my neighborhood is not even the same because half the people aren't even here anymore."

Bill Harju, whose home lost shingles, windows and siding and whose entire garage was blown down the alley, said he realizes that damage hasn't reached into the billions. "Still, I think some of these people could use help," Harju said.

Last month's tornado was blamed for two deaths, damage to hundreds of homes and businesses, and the toppling of the North Side's urban forest as it twisted 14 miles from St. Louis Park to Blaine.

FEMA spokesperson Marquita Hynes said that since President Obama on June 7 declared the site a major disaster, the area has been approved for public assistance -- the state asked for $16.3 million -- and it is eligible for hazard mitigation funding, although they have not yet received an application from either Anoka County or Hennepin County.

In rejecting individual assistance June 13, however, FEMA officials determined that the tornado's damage was not beyond the ability of state and local governments to repair. That meant hundreds of people displaced by the tornado or left with staggering repair bills would have one less place to turn for help.

The state's appeal argued that the tornado hit an area where many people were already living in precarious circumstances. That appeal may still fall short, according to Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, who said he has determined it's difficult for tornado victims to win individual aid from FEMA.

"I still think this is going to be a tough sell," Rybak said on Tuesday. "Before this happened, we were already putting everything we could into north Minneapolis, so now we're reaching down and trying to get more there, and fast. It's not easy."

As a result of the tornado, 85 single-family homes and duplexes will have to be torn down, along with five multifamily dwellings and one multifamily-commercial building, according to state estimates. The demolitions will cost about $2.3 million. Up to 300 tornado survivors need help paying rent, according to Hennepin County officials. As of June 16, families and individuals representing about 30 households were still living in temporary shelter.

Karen Kelley-Ariwoola, vice president of community philanthropy at the Minneapolis Foundation, said her foundation was disappointed by FEMA's rejection of individual assistance. The foundation and other groups helped raise $1.3 million for tornado relief, but aid requests have already exceeded $2 million, she said.

North Side resident Stacy Bondeson said she was happy that the city organized debris cleanups through her neighborhood, but FEMA's decision didn't surprise her.

"We're working-class people," she said. "And compared to Joplin [Missouri], this was nothing."

Louis King, one of the leaders of the Northside Community Response Team, which formed in the days after the tornado, said FEMA's denial of disaster aid won't change the course of recovery.

"In a sense, it's ironic that FEMA says we have enough resources to handle this at a time when we're about to have a state shutdown," King said. "It might have provided some short-term relief, but individual assistance is not going to lead to permanent affordable housing."

matt.mckinney@startribune.com • 612 217-1747 tasnim.shamma@startribune.com • 612 673-7603

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