Relief efforts sweep through North Minneapolis

Photos by James L. Stroud, Jr.

News Analysis
By Mel Reeves
Contributing Writer

The tornado of 2011 — or the “devastation” — will be remembered for the damage it caused to a swath of the Minneapolis Northside community. But it may also be remembered for the overwhelming response of kindness and generosity by neighbors both literal and figurative.
The storm, which seemed to touch down first near Wirth Parkway and travel a northeast line, touched all income levels from Willard Hay to Jordan. Most who toured the area had to fight back disbelief at the magnitude of the damage.

Residents seemed in shock, but they didn’t take a lot of time for self-pity as neighbors helped neighbors clear debris from yards and streets. “We’re still here, and we can rebuild,” Rep. Jeff Hayden said as he and his father Peter Hayden surveyed the damage to his grandmother’s house in the Willard Hay neighborhood. “We will have to come together as a community”
And come together they did.

Makeshift kitchens opened all over the neighborhood as barbeque pits were pressed into service. People brought what they had and helped feed those who were without. Some neighborhoods were treated to an almost daily diet of grilled chicken, hot dogs and hamburgers.

On the corner of Lowry and Logan, which looked like an absolute war zone, two young people, Ebony Bills and Victor Gaten, along with an elderly woman organized a serving line that would have rivaled any restaurant banquets. They put people to work cooking beans over a makeshift fire and even grilled barbeque ribs.

Passersby on Lowry, struck by the corner’s well-organized activity, began to donate and drop off water, fruit, salads, even chicken.

McLemore Construction Company set up grills and a portable kitchen on the corner of 23rd and Sheraton where, Monday through Friday, for free, they served fried catfish and grilled wings and fries and hot dogs for the kids.

In fact, no one who set up shop in the neighborhood charged anything. When construction company owner Neeko McLemore was asked if he was doing this to generate business, he looked surprised by the question. He said he was in the neighborhood and he knew that “the lights were out” and “it looked like some of the kids were hungry.”

Like all natural disasters, this one was accompanied by its share of foolishness, lawlessness and opportunism, but that is not the real story. Some media outlets choose to go with the preplanned story for disaster in Black neighborhoods: “They stealing, they looting, they shooting.” While there indeed were a few heartless hoodlums White and Black who tried to take advantage of the disaster victims — some with pen, some with trucks and some with fast feet — they are not the “story” of the “devastation.”

The real story here is about groups of teenagers on their own initiative helping cut and remove debris: Jasmine Simmons of Henry High, Taylor Anderson and Elise Anderson from Hopkins High, Erika Killingsworth, Dwanna Washington and Courtney Kellogg of Washburn High, and young scholars Raymel, Malik and Javier who went block to block on Monday cleaning up.

The real story here is how Pastor Jerry McAfee of New Salem organized local pastors and religious groups less than 24 hours after the storm. Shiloh Temple began serving hot meals around midweek and became a drop-off center as well as hosting a fundraiser last Friday night.

The real story here is how over 3,000 people volunteered to knock on doors, collect perishables, answer phones, man desks. Community leaders including the mayor’s office, Shiloh Temple, New Salem Baptist, Insight News, KMOJ radio, the University of Minnesota, Summit OIC, Minneapolis Urban League, NorthPoint and EMERGE just to name a few were meeting daily and organizing relief support.

“People kept asking me what is UROC doing,” explained Alysha Price, a research coordinator at University of Minnesota Research and Outreach Center on Plymouth Avenue. I was almost ashamed to say I was here because I didn’t have an answer.”

Price provided an answer. She talked to her boss at UROC and got the university involved in the door-to-door assessment process, volunteering to completely aid and assess Zone 1, which includes the Willard Hay neighborhood.

“Helping by doing” was the theme as the university volunteers took their efforts very seriously. The care, commitment and compassion on the part of the volunteers was evident as some listened to people who just wanted to tell their stories.

The real story here is how KMOJ radio literally opened its doors and became a drop-off point for supplies and perishables, literally feeding people a day after the disaster. Cub Food opened its parking lot and even provided rides for kids while it fed those in need.

Other social services pitched in as well. NorthPoint Health and Wellness Center and the Minneapolis Urban League served lunch most days, while Jordan Hub and Christ English on Oliver and Lowry served hot meals every day.

The affected areas were marked off into three zones, and organizations worked together to make sure that every door was knocked on at every house and that every possible need was assessed. They were so thorough that the teams brought food, water and even baby supplies with them as they did their assessments.

Because the electricity was knocked out and remained so for several days, food, especially cooked food, remained an issue even for some who hadn’t been hit as hard by the storm. As we go to press, the need for cooked food remains high.

When Evita Ellis was asked why she was volunteering she said, “Why not.”

Mel Reeves welcomes reader responses to