Communication issues under review after Mpls. tornado

Emergency responders
Firefighters respond after a tornado swept through north Minneapolis and caused extensive damage in this May 22, 2011 file photo. An MPR News review of documents show that responders dealt with communication issues in the aftermath of the tornado.
Photo courtesy of Tony Webster

Within minutes of the May 22 tornado that ripped across north Minneapolis, calls for help poured into the city's 911 emergency line from residents who reported collapsed homes or missing loved ones.

Minneapolis Fire Department crews made 131 runs to the impact zone, a path of destruction three miles long and quarter-mile wide. They recovered the bodies of two people who died in the immediate aftermath of the storm and helped dozens of the injured.

Mayor R.T. Rybak quickly judged the tornado the biggest disaster to hit the city since the Interstate 35-W bridge collapse in 2007, which killed 13 and injured 145.

"From the moment the tornado hit, it was really clear to me that this was not something that was simply going to go away when the weather changed," he said.

Hundreds of storm-related documents show that city officials responded quickly to the tornado and took steps to search for victims, protect public safety, restore essential services and provide emergency assistance. But their ability to inform increasingly distraught residents was plagued by communication problems — and a lack of power.

The tornado hit the city's $15 million high-tech emergency operations center, forcing city officials to set up shop at City Hall until a generator arrived at the center four hours later.

On the day of the tornado 400 people called the city's 311 communications line. The next day, operators received 2,400 calls and 162 emails, from residents still struggling from downed trees and power lines and blocked streets. Thousands were left in the dark or displaced from their homes and businesses.

Some residents complained that the 311 line gave them incomplete or outdated information. When Matt Nienstedt, 28, called after officials closed exit ramps from Interstate 94 to the north, operators were unable to tell him anything about road closures.

"It was surprising that there was no information from the city about what was open and what was closed," he said.

Despite such complaints, city and county officials who are evaluating the response to the tornado say emergency personnel performed well.


A key issue, however, was the city's inability to use the new emergency operations center created after the I-35W Bridge collapse of 2007. Without a backup generator on site, the EOC was temporarily unusable.

City administrators were aware there was no backup power source, even before the storm, said Director of Emergency Management Lisa Dressler. Still, the lack of a generator and the move didn't hinder the emergency response, she said.

"That is why we have an alternate facility, and in any case it tested our plan and showed that our plan works," Dressler said.

The city still doesn't have a permanent backup generator for its emergency operations center, but it is working on securing funding for one.

Despite that initial glitch, city and county staff were alerted quickly to the disaster and made their way into north Minneapolis and other locations that Sunday, documents show.


Although city and county officials found it a challenge to communicate with each other and with the public, officials said the 311 system functioned well in a fast-moving situation.

The city also used social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook and sent outreach teams with information to the neighborhood. They also relied on the public, including a man with relatives in the Twin Cities who launched his own tornado page on Facebook.

However, without electricity many people affected by the tornado couldn't access the Internet and used their cell phones or resorted to simple word of mouth to find out what was going on and where to go for help.

Some community advocates were particularly concerned that emergency information did not reach the elderly or immigrant communities where many do not speak English at home.

Emergency officials said they quickly recognized the need for translation services and provided them at disaster recovery centers set up in Farview Park and other locations.

The lack of power hampered the city's communication strategy, Rybak said, noting that the city's effort was "probably not good enough."

"We are going to have to come up with another model," the mayor said. "But the answer to that is pretty complex because I don't think there is a quick and easy answer to what you do when the electricity goes out to reach multiple people quickly," he said.


The 131 emergency trips to north Minneapolis by emergency personnel were a third more than the average number of calls the Fire Department typically handles daily for the entire city.

To assess the destruction, emergency officials quickly established three zones and dispatched search and rescue crews. Emergency call volume tapered off as crews cleared each zone.

Assistant Fire Chief Dave DeWall said responders systematically searched each block in each zone looking for victims.

"It was dark and we had made it through all of the zones that we had established to go house to house to see if everybody was okay and that was done around 10 p.m. or so."

With no electricity and many streets impassible, police declared an overnight curfew to prevent looting and allow workers to collect debris.


Although the response from emergency personnel was rapid, it would take weeks for the neighborhood to begin to recover from the tornado.

North Minneapolis already had a high concentration of poverty and social service needs before the storm. About 80 percent of people affected by the tornado were receiving public assistance. Among that group, people with jobs were spending up to 70 percent of their income on housing.

Many residents affected by the tornado would need urgent help finding food, clothing and shelter, emergency officials realized. The scale of the demand became more apparent as people lined up at relief centers.

The city set up temporary shelters to help displaced people, as did Hennepin County social services, the Salvation Army, Red Cross and other groups.

Some advocates complained about confusion over which groups were responsible for certain services. More than two dozen officials interviewed by MPR News said coordination issues were quickly overcome and people received the help they needed.

But Hennepin County Human Services area director Rex Holzemer admits that it initially took some time.

"There was some confusion about some of that, especially in that first week and it created, I think, some difficulties for everyone probably as a result and we all have to take ownership of that," Holzemer said.

Holzemer and others say social service agencies learned quickly from any coordination problems and will make changes for future disasters. But some communication issues in emergencies are common, he said.

"It was messy at times, but it often is just because of how rapidly things are unfolding and you're often making decisions without having as much understanding of what exactly is going on at any given point as you need to do that effectively," Holzemer said. "The bottom line is that things got done."


After a disaster, the city responds to emergencies and makes formal requests for assistance to the county, which has contracts with social service agencies.

Hennepin County human service manager Paula Haywood, said she would like to see more local, community-based organizations such as churches and social service groups immediately involved in future emergencies. That way, people could avoid having to travel to more than one site to obtain help, she said.

"If there were more community providers that were there at the table," Haywood said, "they probably could have provided some of the needs of these clients much earlier."

A shared database of information on victims also would help social service groups provide a more effective disaster response, Haywood said.

Still, the city's response to the tornado was swift, considering the extent of the damage and the high concentration of rental properties in the zone, said John Fruetel, a Minneapolis emergency official who was a fire department incident commander during the 35W Bridge collapse.

"I've been in this business for 30-some odd years and this is the first time we've had this kind of disaster in a large urban setting like this," he said. "So the recovery process, while it's relatively new across the country, I think it was fairly effective."

Fruetel said emergency officials are training to respond to similar disasters in the future.

As winter approaches, city and county officials continue to evaluate the May tornado response. They expect to issue official reports soon.