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Tribune reporter helps clean up former neighborhood ravaged by tornado

Volunteers help a couple on Dupont Avenue clear a twisted stockade fence, remove tree limbs and debris from their property after their home and other structures in North Minneapolis were hit by a tornado May 22. A total of 2,000 people from the Twin Cities area and around the state did light cleanup work on June 4. Tribune photo by David Little

I grew up during the 1950s and '60s in the Camden area of North Minneapolis and moved away in 1968 after high school. Although I've lived in four cities during the last 43 years, including the last 29 in Willmar, I've always considered the North Side my hometown.

The news coming out of my old neighborhood has been kind of depressing the last decade or so with increasing crime and home foreclosures.

I was especially concerned about damage caused by the May 22 tornado that tore through parts of the area where I had biked as a kid.

So when I heard the City of Minneapolis was recruiting 2,000 volunteers to perform light debris cleanup on June 4, I called to register and chose the afternoon shift rather than work all day or in the morning.

The event was organized by the City of Minneapolis, the Red Cross, The Salvation Army and Habitat for Humanity.

Hundreds of volunteers gathered in the former Macy's Department Store at the now closed Brookdale Center. (I remember when Brookdale opened in 1962, a beautiful mall and the second of the four "dales'' built by Dayton's department store).

Inside, Habitat split volunteers into groups. They briefed us about our task and neighborhood conditions, and urged us to talk to residents.

Before heading out, I had a chance visit with a 30-something volunteer named Ana. I said I was hoping to work in my home area of 40th and Emerson Avenue. She said she grew up in the house at 4000 Emerson. I said my address was 4010. "No way,'' she exclaimed. "Way,'' I said.

Laid out on tables were hundreds of pairs of donated work gloves and dozens of rakes, shovels and brooms for the workers. We grabbed gloves, tools, bag lunches and bottled water and boarded city buses for the ride south on Brooklyn Boulevard, west on 44th Avenue and then north on Fremont.

Teams were assigned to work zones and I and about two dozen others were assigned to a zone located two blocks south of my old home. As the bus neared our drop-off at 36th and Fremont, team leader Gayle Christensen of New Brighton asked if anyone was familiar with the area. I and a couple of others raised our hands.

When we got off the bus, Gayle looked at her map and asked where our starting point at 37th and Bryant Avenue was located. I said it was four blocks east and one block north, so she told me to lead the way.

The big boulevard trees I remember arching over the streets were gone, blown onto homes, vehicles or in the streets. Those had been removed, leaving big stumps. Uprooted trees even knocked out underground utilities. A CenterPoint Energy crew was repairing a line disturbed by tree roots.

Our job was to rake up and place small branches and leaves on the boulevard where larger branches were already stacked and awaiting removal, and to bag and place trash such as broken boards, insulation and other stuff in the alleys.

With the trees gone, structural damage was clearly evident and varied from broken doors and windows to missing roofs and smashed porches and garages. Inspectors had placarded some houses as uninhabitable while other homes were vacant, probably victims of foreclosure as evidenced by the tall grass.

Homeowners who gave us access to their property were friendly and grateful for the help. At the Dupont Avenue home of a long-time North Side couple, we dismantled their twisted stockade fence, removed tree limbs and raked the yard.

A tree destroyed their Ford Ranger pickup near the alley but didn't touch the garage or the boat. The husband, in his mid-60s, appeared (understandably) to be a little overwhelmed by the damage. His wife was more talkative. I told her my connection to the neighborhood and she told me that her husband had a brother who was a high school classmate of mine.

Gayle, who has training in emergency response, kept track of us and urged us to stay hydrated in the 80-plus-degree heat. The Red Cross, the fire department, police department and two guys on a four-wheeler provided water as well as some salty and sugary snacks to keep us energized.

Some sense of normalcy seemed to be returning to the devastated scene. Two women were washing their car in the driveway, people were hanging out at a corner grocery store and a guy was mowing his yard while the barbecue smoked and kids splashed in the pool.

After raking and hauling debris for three hours, we were sweaty and tired. On the bus ride back to Brookdale, Gayle thanked us for our efforts and we showed our appreciation to her. A group of strangers had become friends.

But we had had a chance to help others in their time of need, and that's what's important.

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150