MPR reporter recalls first moments at the tornado sceneby Rupa Shenoy, Minnesota Public Radio
MINNEAPOLIS — It was hot, humid and unnaturally bright in North Minneapolis after the tornado. Downed trees blocked roads, so I hiked into the area that saw the most damage.
The first person I saw was Mayor R.T. Rybak, soaked from head to foot and in high-energy mode.
"It's incredibly widespread damage but so far relatively few injuries. It's still early, but we're encouraging people to check in on their neighbors. Don't light any cigarettes because there's gas leaks, and don't sign any papers with anybody [who has] some brilliant insurance idea," he said. "Mostly we're seeing North Minneapolis looking out for neighbors, and that's a tough but cool thing to see."
People crawled out of their homes and called out the names of their loved ones, who called back. Many circled their houses, assessing damage. Some just stood and stared at the huge trees that had ruled over the neighborhood like protective giants. Now they rested on smashed cars, laid in the streets and leaned on houses.
I stopped a man named Tim Martin who already seemed to sag with sadness and resignation. "My house got totally destroyed," he said. "My neighborhood's gone."
People who had friends and family in North Minneapolis began to drive in to check on them. Soon the roads were jammed -- because the cars just couldn't get anywhere. By that time everyone was in their yards or the streets, talking on cellphones, talking to each other -- and there was an atmosphere that reminded me of a block party.
Into this came the emergency responders. They drove their big vehicles up around the traffic jam, through yards, leaving deep, wide and muddy scars. The vehicles moved fast, and people in their path scattered, screamed, shouted and swore.
I was among the people running. When I stopped, I was at the bottom of a hill, at an intersection roped off by yellow police tape. People were huddled in groups, watching police take away the body of a man who had died when a branch went through his windshield. I talked to many people who couldn't do anything more than shake their heads and say how sad and shocked they were.
Still, people were having a hard time realizing they might not be able to stay in their homes. Some simply couldn't believe the extent of the damage. Others were afraid if they left someone would steal something from their property - and that did happen in the days after the tornado.
I talked to a mother named Tamara Keeler, who had lost the roof of her house, several windows and the garage. But she and her daughter were set on staying there that night.
"We put our mattresses in our living room," she said. "And we got all of our candles out in case we need to light them."
When I was heading out of the neighborhood, I came across a road that had two huge sets of power lines lying across it. I'd have to walk two blocks extra to get around. As an example of how dangerous the area was after the tornado: I stood there for a few minutes, wondering if I could climb across the power lines. I might have done it. Luckily, a woman walking by just said, "No. Do not do that." And I came to my senses.
As I was walking those two extra blocks I kept looking at all the kids running around and hoping they were smarter than me. Not surprisingly, they were; no power line-related injuries were reported.
I got word that buses were waiting nearby to take people to shelter. It took me an hour to drive roughly a mile to the site. I found dozens of empty city buses idling in a parking lot. Just one of the buses held two families.
Samantha Hannon sat with her kids, just waiting. She said she'd cry if she talked about what happened, so her young son Lamont took over. He was still excited with all the day's events. He said they'd been walking when the storm hit, and someone pulled over to give them a ride.
"And when we got in her car it started pouring down really, really hard. And then it got a little ... scary," he said. "And my mom she was crying."
I asked Hannon if her house had been damaged. "I already didn't have no house," she said. "I was staying with someone else."
Hannon said her family had been asked to leave that home. Before the tornado, she said she didn't know where she and her children would've stayed that night. Now she had nothing to do but wait to be taken to shelter with the rest of the tornado refugees.
- All Things Considered, 05/21/2012, 4:49 p.m.