2011 Minneapolis tornado: No shelter from memories

  • Article by: LARRY OAKES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 22, 2012 - 8:49 AM

The Fullers found a new home after theirs was destroyed. But the trauma of the tornado clings to them.

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John Fuller picked flowers for his wife, Peaches, on the vacant lot where their house once stood. The storm left the couple and their 11 children homeless.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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A year later, Peaches Fuller says she has the same nightmare nearly every night.

There's a tornado. She and her husband, John, herd their kids into the basement. And then she realizes:

"A kid is missing. There's always the same theme," she said. "It's not always the same one, but one of them is missing, and we can't find them."

Exactly one year ago, that scenario was real, and they still thank God that John, as the tornado shredded their north Minneapolis duplex, ran upstairs and found their 1-year-old daughter, Johdee, unharmed, standing bewildered in her diaper, and hustled her to the basement and to safety.

John and Peaches Fuller and their 11 children survived mostly unharmed, but like an estimated 100 families, the Fullers found themselves displaced by the city's biggest natural disaster in decades. The EF1 tornado killed two people -- one during the cleanup -- injured 48 and damaged more than 3,700 properties, including at least 274 that, like the Fuller's, had to be torn down or have major structural repairs.

With no renter's insurance and few resources, the Fullers moved through three different temporary homes until they found a rental property big enough for them. It's just a few blocks from where the tornado wrecked their last place and left them with trauma that still surfaces every time the skies darken.

"Now, when it gets gray and windy, the kids all run into the house," Peaches Fuller said. "It's our own version of PTSD, I guess."

'This was my home'

The couple returned last week to the site of their former home, an up-and-down duplex on the 2600 block of Penn Avenue N. Because their family is so large, they needed both halves of the duplex in order to qualify for the federal Section 8 housing allowance that helped pay their rent.

The lot where the duplex and garage stood is now vacant, graded flat and planted with grass that was poking up through straw mulch.

"Look," John Fuller said. "These onions and chives coming up are from our garden." His wife answered: "I can't believe we lived here, man. This was my home."

About 100 families -- upwards of 400 people -- were, like the Fullers, displaced from their primary residence, and that does not include people who stayed with family and friends, said Debra Chavis, project manager for the Northside Community Response Team (NCRT), a tornado-response coalition of several organizations led by Pillsbury United Communities.

As recently as last month, the NCRT helped a couple and their newborn, who had yet to resettle after being displaced by the tornado, Chavis said.

"They had been going from couch to couch," she said.

On the afternoon of the tornado, the Fullers were all home, celebrating the baptism of their daughter, Sadie, that morning, when the terrifying moment came.

John Fuller said sirens went off 20 or 30 seconds before the storm hit -- not enough time, the couple agreed, to get a family to safety. She was looking out a window, to the southwest, toward the advancing storm, when she saw "trees falling in a domino pattern and going flying off." Then she saw it: "A gray ball coming towards us. It looked like all the weather in the world -- all the clouds and rain and wind -- forming into a gray mass and moving along the ground."

As their children followed their commands and headed to the basement, Peaches Fuller yelled: "Where's the baby?"

John Fuller sprinted up the duplex's front stairway and through the upper unit. He could hear the tornado ripping into the structure and saw insulation falling like snow as the roof was lifted, twisted and set back down, crooked, on the walls.

He scooped up Johdee and ran back down the stairs just as the screaming wind slammed and jammed the door to the lower unit. John yelled that he'd take the back stairway instead and ran back up.

Peaches ran through swirling debris to the back door to wait.

"I heard glass breaking. I looked, and it was like [the movie] 'The Matrix.' I saw all this glass from a window flying across the room in slow motion."

Then it was over. By the time John entered the back door with the baby, the tornado had passed.

'Post apocalyptic'

Now, suddenly, they had no shelter in a landscape that Peaches Fuller remembers as "post apocalyptic." "There were all these houses with their roofs ripped off, and all these trees broken off and looking like someone giving the finger," she said.

They stayed a few nights across Penn Avenue in a house their landlord owned. Then they joined three dozen other displaced people sleeping on cots at the Red Cross shelter set up in a gym at North Commons recreation center.

"They did an amazing job taking care of everybody, but it was like being in jail," John Fuller said. "It smelled funny, and you could hear people yelling."

When that shelter closed after about a month to allow summer recreation programs to start, the Fullers found space at Mary's Place, the free Minneapolis transitional housing facility of 500 residents, started by Mary Jo Copeland.

Finally, more than two months after the tornado, they found a landlord with an empty duplex big enough for them, on Bryant Avenue North. John Fuller, who had worked as a general contractor before being disabled by a neck injury in a car accident, worked on the duplex to make it meet the code requirements of their Section 8 housing subsidy.

Several organizations and individuals donated household items such as linens, utensils and clothing to the family to replace the things wrecked by the storm or the mold that set in after everything got wet. They now say they wish they'd had renter's insurance, and they recommend that other renters not make the same mistake they did by not buying it.

'Everything got quiet'

The Fullers wonder if they all might need some help dealing with the trauma. They are not alone in that regard. Last summer, NorthPoint Health Wellness Center ran a weekly support group for seven families that were struggling with the psychological effects of going through the tornado, and they expect at least some people to need similar services as the community observes the anniversary of the tornado, said Annice Golden, NorthPoint's behavioral health director.

"Recently, when they tested the tornado sirens, during the day on a Wednesday, a lot of the kids in the neighborhood really panicked," Golden said.

Looking back, the Fullers say they think often of something amazing: The same moment John found Johdee upstairs, he noticed the storm paused. The couple decided later that it must have been because they were very momentarily in the "eye" of the tornado, its calm vortex.

"Everything got quiet, and she was just standing there in the sun," Peaches Fuller said. "But I haven't been able to find that calmness and peace since then. There's just the horror."

Larry Oakes • 612-673-1751

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