In a north Minneapolis school, a principal and his students remember the stormby Laura Yuen, Minnesota Public Radio
MINNEAPOLIS — When the skies turned dark a few weeks ago in north Minneapolis, some students at Lucy Craft Laney Elementary School reported to the nurse's office with stomachaches. Others cried at the sight of heavy rain outside their windows, certain that a twister was headed their way.
The recent thunderstorm brought them back to the day a tornado ripped through their neighborhood a year ago.
Lucy Laney is among the seven schools near the path of the storm which toppled trees and homes in economically depressed neighborhoods and damaged about 3,700 buildings in the city. The schools weren't damaged, but most of the kids experienced the storm firsthand. Emotions still run deep.
For 10-year-old Brandon Wall, the chaos that the tornado produced is still vivid. He remembers walking around the north side just a couple of hours after the storm.
"We were like, whoa. All this happened over one tornado," said Wall. "Trees stuck in people's cars, windows shattered, people's houses messed up. And candy."
Candy, Wall said, because the tornado shredded a gas station on Penn Avenue, propelling the sweets everywhere.
Fifth grader Jania Kloeppel and her family were among those that had to uproot themselves, living in shelters, or with other family members, because their houses were unlivable. She remembers crying and hustling to the basement with her mother. Even today, Kloeppel says a bad storm can bring anxiety to her and her classmates.
"I feel a little scared. Sometimes we hear tornado warnings, and we think it's going to hit Minnesota again," said Kloeppel.
Another student at Lucy Craft Laney Elementary witnessed a death in the storm: He was in a car when a tree crashed onto the vehicle, killing the driver.
Jenny DonFrancesco, a teacher who lives on the north side, said some of her fifth graders are still suffering from the trauma. An artist from SteppingStone Theatre has been helping them work through their memories by re-enacting the tornado. During the exercise, one of her students told DonFrancesco she needed a break and cowered under a desk.
"It's so visceral. I'm not sure what the best way for them to cope with it is. I just know we have to cope with it," said DonFrancesco. "I know we have to bring it up."
The school is marking the first anniversary of the tornado in a number of ways. In art class, students draw their recollections of the storm that will be incorporated into a school mural. They scribble ominous black spirals and severed roofs, but also pictures of rebuilding.
There are yellow earth movers and armies of smiling helpers, representing the thousands of volunteers who worked to clean up the neighborhood. Another picture shows kids tossing around a football. In a word, normalcy.
Principal David Branch wants to the students to tap into that sense of resilience. As a former social worker, he points out that the north side has weathered crises ranging from the crack cocaine epidemic to the wave of home foreclosures.
"Then the tornado came through," he said. "One thing that stands out to me is, as poor as this community is, and as traumatized as this community is, this is a community that tends to bounce back."
Branch himself is far from immune. The storm ripped off parts of his house, displacing his family for five months while it was repaired. Branch and his wife, their two youngest children, and the family dog lived in a hotel room until October.
His voice catches when he recalled how he couldn't provide stability and privacy for his middle-school kids.
"That's not what you want for your child," he said. "There's a certain amount of lack of control we had on the situation. I couldn't speed the contractors up, I couldn't speed the insurance company up. I couldn't do anything but write emails, make phone calls, but I physically wasn't doing the work on the property."
Branch said the experience made him more humble and empathetic to the needs of his low-income students. More than a fifth of the students are considered highly mobile or homeless, one of the highest rates in the school district.
He considers it a small wonder that most of the kids even made it back to the classroom last fall. Some families moved away from the north side after the tornado. But he said teachers and social workers checked in on families at home, and courted kids back to their desks by the beginning of the school year.
One year after the storm, enrollment at the school is actually up. The Minneapolis School District says the storm produced no significant shifts on the north side.
Tuesday, Branch will lead his school outside in a solemn ceremony remembering the tornado, culminating with students letting go of hundreds of balloons into the air.
"It's a symbolic way of saying we're releasing some of that anxiety, and we're on our way to being healed," he said.
- Morning Edition, 05/21/2012, 6:40 a.m.