Nearly a year after a deadly tornado hit north Minneapolis, thousands of homes have been repaired. But the recovery is far from complete in an area that was already struggling with poverty, crime and foreclosures.
The blue tarps that once blanketed damaged homes are almost gone but the impact of the storm is still being felt, said Jill Kiener, Coordinating consultant to the Northside Home Fund, a group which helped coordinate tornado recovery.
"I don't know that you can even completely measure the recovery just in numbers of tarps or structures repaired," said Kiener. "But the loss in income for families that lost possessions and had to re-buy those things, the renters that had to move out of the community, and then the structure of the properties and the trees — all those things are going to take a lot of time."
The first installment of federal disaster assistance money has finally come through. The city of Minneapolis and the park board got their first Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reimbursement early this month.
The $2.8 million payment goes towards fixing roughly $6 million in damaged public infrastructure, a figure $10 million less than the original public damage estimate. Minneapolis officials say the actual cost of repairs was lower than originally thought. Officials say they also found savings in the actual cost debris removal, road and bridge repair.
But FEMA denied individual assistance for the thousands of north Minneapolis residents affected by the tornado.
There are no concrete data on where displaced residents went or whether they've since returned to north Minneapolis. Many people in the tornado zone were living doubled and tripled up with relatives before the storm hit.
In all, the tornado damaged about 3,700 properties, almost one-third of which were rentals. City data does not reflect how many individual rental units were affected.
According to city officials, 96 percent of the 206 properties that suffered major damage have been fixed up or torn down since last May. The city reports 149 were repaired or are in the process of being repaired, 48 others were demolished or have pending demolition orders and nine properties still have unrepaired damage. Four homeowners who lost their homes in the tornado zone are building new homes from the ground up.
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said he's pleased to see all the new roofs in the tornado zone, but he'd like to see even more progress.
"In some cases, a lot of houses look better than they did before, but I don't think we have yet to see the big physical rebuilding that I would have loved us to have had the resources to do," Rybak said.
Many homeowners in the zone were uninsured or underinsured.
When the federal government denied individual FEMA assistance, the city looked for other ways to help people in this situation.
The city raised and distributed more than $1 million in free assistance and loans. The federal Small Business Administration contributed another $1 million in low-interest recovery loans to 55 residents and 7 businesses.
The storm revealed just how many people in the tornado zone were living in poverty. About 80 percent of people affected by the tornado were receiving public assistance. Within that group, people with jobs were spending 70 percent of their income on housing.
Rybak said the tornado taught the city a valuable lesson about responding to a humanitarian disaster.
"We're better prepared because we've been through it and we've learned a lot," Rybak said.
Despite that preparation, the city still lacks a permanent generator for its emergency operations center.
Last year's tornado knocked out power to the new $15 million facility, forcing officials to set up emergency operations at City Hall instead. The city has applied for grants to pay for a permanent generator. In the meantime, Minneapolis has a backup plan that includes a standing contract for a vendor to supply a generator on short notice.
To improve disaster response in the future, Rybak said he'd like to establish a database of addresses so officials can access information about damaged properties.
Such a database would have helped responders in the aftermath of last May's storm.
Before the tornado, north Minneapolis was ground zero for foreclosures, property flipping and speculation by absentee landlords. The painstaking task of untangling who owned tornado-damaged properties has slowed down the recovery.
About 100 damaged homes are still in limbo as officials work to sort out the mess. The city says up to 60 of these damaged properties, where owners still have not made repairs, are being considered for demolition.
Tom Deegan, the city's director of housing and fire inspections, said the process takes time, given the challenges of determining ownership and the reason why each property hasn't been fixed.
"If it's going to lead to demolition we want to make certain that all those folks that have a financial interest, that their due process has been granted to them," Deegan said. "It takes time."
Deegan said the city needs to do a better job of telling residents what the city is doing to take care of damaged properties so they know action is under way.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
Meanwhile, as the recovery continues planners are beginning to map out what the tornado zone could look like in the future.
One plan would replicate an ongoing redevelopment project called EcoVillage, a leafy north side neighborhood once dominated by crime, slumlords and boarded homes.
A coalition of community groups, non-profits and the city took control of the problem properties and vacant lots in the EcoVillage. They are now building 160 new affordable, green housing and rental units on those lots over the next decade.
City housing director Tom Streitz said EcoVillage offers a hopeful vision for the rest of the north side. The city has a similar strategy in the works to help north Minneapolis rebuild in the tornado zone.
"The way we are going to regrow north Minneapolis is by showing the world that we have these beautiful old homes but we also have these beautiful new green construction," Streitz said.
Northside residents who survived the storm could use a sign of hope.
Homeowner Prince Jeter's house still isn't totally repaired after the tornado blew out his windows and ripped the roof, gutters and chimney off the home where he lives with his wife and two kids.
For more than six months, a blue tarp was the only thing protecting them from the elements. Jeter didn't have enough insurance to pay for repairs.
"There was no roof and there were holes in every room on the first floor at least three feet in diameter holes from the water damage," said Jeter.
Jeter's wife stayed with family while he stayed behind to protect the house and search for help.
"I wasn't just going to sit with my hands folded," he said.
Finally, Habitat for Humanity came through with assistance. Starting last October, the organization put on a new roof and made thousands of dollars in free repairs. Most of the work is complete.
It's just in time. Jeter and his wife are expecting a new baby.
"In the next week or two the patio will be done and I will be out here having a picnic or a cookout with some buddies," he said.
Jeter is looking forward to enjoying the simple pleasures of summer, something his family couldn't imagine a year ago.