Janice Buckingham may not have a permanent place to call home yet, but she's awfully grateful to have a bed to sleep in at last.
In the three weeks and three days since a tornado ripped through north Minneapolis and flooded her basement apartment near 17th and Russell avenues, she's been bunking on couches and cots, mostly recently in the gym at North Commons Community Center.
On Thursday, Buckingham, 48, looked like she was ready to collapse as she moved her things into a first-floor room at the Starlite Motel in Columbia Heights. Her 4-year-old granddaughter will join her there soon.
Elim Transitional Housing has found temporary or permanent housing for several dozen people who had been staying at North Commons. The new digs include six rooms at the Starlite and more at other local hotels and motels.
The tornado refugees had faced imminent eviction from the rec center that was thrown into temporary service as an emergency shelter four days after the May 22 storm uprooted hundreds of people from their homes.
The center must reopen on Monday for summer programs, however, and for privacy reasons it can't house a shelter at the same time.
The Red Cross will not open another shelter after the rec center closes on Sunday, but the agency continues to work with tornado victims case by case, according to Lynette Nyman, spokesperson for the American Red Cross. Since the tornado struck, the agency has served 150,000 meals, been host to 1,340 overnight shelter stays, deployed six mobile feeding and distribution trucks and provided 350 trained disaster relief workers.
Elim executive director Sue Watlov Phillips said her organization had moved most of the families out of the community center by Thursday evening; the rest were to be out on Friday. Some of the families moved into permanent housing, she said. Others will live in short-term housing, such as hotels, for two to three weeks before moving into permanent housing, she said.
For now, Buckingham is grateful for the tiny room with a TV, air conditioner and, best of all, a bathtub. "I can sit in a hot tub," she said. "I can relax without everybody walking over my head and pacing the floors all night."
Buckingham escaped the tornado with the clothes on her back and the flip-flops on her feet, she said. The tubs and trash bags of goods she moved into the motel Thursday were donated goods she's collected for herself and her granddaughter, who has been staying with relatives.
Kevin Watson, 54, also is grateful to have a room at the Starlite. He was at church on the morning of May 22, then headed to the Fourth Street Saloon to watch basketball. When he heard about the tornado, he tried to get home to 15th and Upton avenues. Then a friend called and told him he didn't have a home to go to.
"I can't wait to get to that bed," he said. "I've been living on that cot. My back is so bad right now."
Still, Watson helped Delray Meanweather, 40, and Kathy Stewart, 48, carry their five tubs and one black trash bag of Red Cross-donated goods to their second-floor room.
Stewart works as a nursing assistant but doesn't want to let her fiancé too far out of her sight as their Sept. 14 wedding approaches. He's been having seizures since the tornado.
They are at the Starlite for just a couple of weeks. Elim has found permanent housing for them in an apartment on Golden Valley Road and paid the first month's rent and security deposit. Now it just needs to be fixed up and painted.
Staff writers Mary Lynn Smith and Matt McKinney contributed to this report. Pat Pheifer • 612-673-7252