In north Minneapolis, a whirlwind, then stasis

  • Article by: MAUREEN MULVANEY
  • Updated: May 5, 2012 - 4:31 PM

The tornado hit. The volunteers came and went. And now the North Side waits patiently -- once again.


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It was a sleepy hot, humid Sunday in May, almost a year ago now; a day for barbecues and cool lemonade. I was enjoying the laziness, slapping the season's first mosquitoes, swapping stories with neighbors over the back-yard fence.

Sunday always holds that last piece of delicious relaxation before the workweek starts again, and I was savoring it, mentally counting the days until my teaching year drew to a close. Once the summer heat kicks in, students' minds drift elsewhere.

Mine does, too. I stretched and yawned, and was thinking of calling one of my boys to light the grill. It was very still. Then the tornado sirens started screaming.

Strange -- there was no wind, no rain. I scanned the sky and saw that to the north, it was deep purple-black. Since it seemed fine where I was, I stayed put, leaning on the fence and surveying the yard, thinking I would put off lighting the grill until I saw what the weather was going to do.

I watched the evil black band obliterating the northern half of the sky. It seemed a living thing, moving, roiling and sending out electrical flashes. There was a heady, humid, metallic scent in the still air around my house as a sudden cool breeze sent leaves scattering across the grass.

The sky began to flash like a disco strobe, on and off and on, on, on, off. I called my boys inside.

We huddled around the television. As usual, the weather screens were brilliantly flashing with alerts in red and orange. The line of storms was tracking across north Minneapolis, only seven miles from my home but a world away.

North Minneapolis was the 'hood, the inner city, a place of intensity. I thought of my students and hoped they were able to take cover. Then I didn't think about it much more. The storm never really hit my neighborhood, and I chalked it up to hysterical television stations trying to make a crisis out of nothing.

The next morning, my clock radio kicked on at 5:30. I reached over to hit the snooze button and something made me freeze. They were talking about north Minneapolis. Hit hard by the storm. Very hard. Schools were closing.

My stomach clenched. No. That meant my students, inner-city kids who were vulnerable in every way, were in the middle of this. No. In the dim morning light, the television news reports confirmed the radio accounts. North Minneapolis had been blasted.

Soon after, the phone rang, and it was my principal telling me that school was closed. They didn't know much yet, but word was that the area was flattened.

Thousands of trees were down. Block after block after block. Impassable. No electricity. A disaster zone. I couldn't go back to bed, because I was worried about my students.

Nervously, I flicked on the television and watched in horror as station after station showed the North Side. Parts of houses, shingles, sheds and porch railings lay askew. There was a boat smashed into the top of a house and a stray cat pouncing from board to board, mewing. A woman in a gaily colored head scarf stood alone, hunched and hopeless, as she stared at the mess.

I tried to go in that day; the streets were entirely blocked by trees. Electrical wires were hissing on the ground. It was too far to walk in to school, too dangerous.

When I went the next day, there were roadblocks and police barricading all entrances. The video footage on the news continued. Finally, on my third attempt, later that same day, the police checked my school ID and waved me through the barricade.

I parked my car, unloaded a big tray of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and was able to walk in the five blocks to the school. What I saw on the way brought tears to my eyes. There were small children darting around like stray cats, and I passed my sandwiches to them, three at a time. A few adults were out as well, smoking and wandering in groups, surveying the scene. Desolate.

One person died in the storm, and another died during the cleanup. Thousands of trees were felled. The stately old oak, elm and ash that had stood sentinel for decades were now lying across roads and smashed into rooftops: a loss of life like no other for this community.

Many older homes, vulnerable and sorely needing maintenance before, were now badly damaged. In the end, school was closed for three days. Some students were homeless, and many huddled in basements of damaged houses with no electricity or water.

When we reopened, it was with relief, because now the students had a place to go. Instead of regular lessons, we spent time talking and helping students process the tragedy. Together, we worried about those who hadn't yet checked in. I have never felt as needed or as vital as a teacher.

The people of Minneapolis rushed in with aid. My son's school, Benilde-St. Margaret's, came in like a fairy godmother and offered every student a backpack filled with necessities like detergent, toothpaste, clean T-shirts, books and snacks.

It was amazing. Volunteers roamed the area by the hundreds, helping with cleanup, cooking hot dogs and offering counseling. At first, the outpourings were hugely generous, and then, as with most disasters, they gradually trickled down to almost nothing.

Now, we are approaching the one-year anniversary of the tornado. The federal government decided that this tornado wasn't a true disaster and was unworthy of any cash to fix things up. So progress has been slow.

Lots of homes received new roofs, windows and porches -- welcome maintenance that was overdue -- thanks to insurance. Sadly, though, too many houses still sport blue plastic tarps over the damaged roofs.

Tree stumps grace every corner and front porches lean askew, victims of the tornado winds. More than a few absentee landlords took the insurance money and ran, leaving the rotting homes behind to join the growing inventory of north Minneapolis abandoned homes.

And one year later, the students in my English class will sit at computers and continue the healing process by writing about their experiences. They made it through, and so will north Minneapolis.

There are positives. The mayor delivered his state of the city address at the Capri Theater, here on our school campus, and in the speech was a pledge for renewal of the North Side.

The weary North Side has heard this sort of thing before. So it will wait, patiently as always, and see how much actually happens.

Tiny, sticklike trees are being plopped into the ground in place of the grand old masters. In them reside the tiny green buds of hope for the future.


Maureen Mulvaney teaches at PYC Arts and Technology High School in north Minneapolis.

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