In a part of Minneapolis where neighbors often feel buffeted from all directions, Sunday's tornado was one thing they didn't think they had to worry about.
"I didn't think tornadoes happened in the city," said Angelo Wagner, sitting on the porch of his now unlivable house.
But it did, in a sudden and horrific way, scrambling the lives and homesteads of the hardscrabble Jordan neighborhood into unfamiliar chaos.
Two stories above Wagner's unit on Oliver Avenue N., the roof of the triplex was lifted off and dumped down the street. Suzanne Bradshaw, seven months pregnant, stepped out of the closet where she was hiding and saw open sky above. A trip to the hospital showed that her child was all right.
The tornado appeared to exact its strongest fury along Penn Avenue, heading north from Broadway. The solid, old brick building housing the Broadway Liquor Outlet looked as if a bomb had detonated in front of it. Through gaping windows, wine bottles stood in orderly rows on their shelves.
Among the homes just north of Broadway's commercial strip, survivors told stories of hearing sirens and barely having time to make it to the basement, if they could get there at all. The air filled with flying branches and leaves, water, and then more dangerous objects. Parts of garages, siding and lumber became projectiles, impaling homes and cars and crashing through windows.
From his apartment on Penn Avenue, Donald Rice watched as the tornado roared past, blue, hissing and filled with lightning. It peeled off the roof of his 17-unit complex and punched holes in all the windows. On the street, a telephone pole was snapped 6 feet up and dropped in the center of the street, along with a collection bin for clothes and a crumpled Dumpster.
Kathy Steward was in the same building and said she saw a man on Penn Avenue overtaken by the tornado. "He got picked up and flew over the tree," she said. What happened to him after that? "I don't know."
'It's only a house'
Two garages in the alley behind Sharon Lott's home were gone when she came up from the basement. The huge ash tree in her front yard lay on Penn Avenue, leaving a gaping hole on her front step. Another tree clobbered her car.
"It's only a house," said Lott, a cancer survivor. "I've got insurance."
Beau Brown was out for an afternoon walk when the tornado arrived. For a moment, he watched, awestruck. Then he ran behind the huge stone edifice of the St. Anne-St. Joseph Hien Church.
"I figured if God wanted me, he would take me here," Brown said. He was unscathed, as was the church's cupola.
John Fuller had gotten most of his 11 children to the basement when he realized something awful. Johdee, the 1-year-old, was upstairs in her crib.
As he went to save her, Fuller felt a powerful force of tornado-driven air driving him off his feet. He grabbed the wailing child and ran barefoot through broken glass back down the stairs.
With a quarter of his roof gone, Fuller said he felt lucky. His neighbor's entire roof was missing.
What's more, "we got people around here looking for their loved ones," he said.
Next door, Fong Chang saw his mother knocked off her feet in the living room. He dragged her to safety.
Then, in a matter of minutes, everything was quiet. People emerged to find their streets blocked by giant oaks, elms, pines, power poles and a spaghetti bowl of wires.
By late afternoon, a hot and sticky sun shone on the shambles of one of Minneapolis's poorest neighborhoods. Hundreds of people walked up and down the streets, some documenting the moment, others dazed and aimless. Many headed south, where they were told buses would take them to shelters elsewhere in the city.
Reports of looting added to the frustration. Bradshaw, who had been taken to the hospital to be examined, returned to find televisions, game players, computers and other valuables had been stolen from her home.
Minutes later, eight Minneapolis police officers, grim-faced, threaded their way past the toppled trees, providing some sense of order amid the chaos.
Michelle Williams had retrieved only a jacket from her apartment as she walked south down Penn Avenue. Williams asked an officer where she could find a shelter, and he directed her toward the Fourth Precinct headquarters. Williams headed in that direction, still terrified at what she had witnessed.
"Thank God we're still alive," she said. But still, "you just can't really make any sense of it."
James Eli Shiffer • 612-673-4271