Cleanup begins after deadly Minneapolis tornado

Published 11:52 am Monday, May 23, 2011

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — City crews cleared debris block by block Monday as they tallied the number of north Minneapolis homes damaged by a tornado that killed one person and injured at least 29 others, Mayor R.T. Rybak said.

Authorities imposed an overnight curfew over a 4-square-mile area, including some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, to prevent looting and keep streets clear for emergency crews after the twister hit late Sunday. Rybak said one liquor store was looted right after the tornado hit and that a few burglaries took place overnight.

Police were still keeping nonresidents out of an “exclusion zone” in the hardest-hit areas. Off-ramps from Interstate 94 to north Minneapolis will be closed until further notice to reduce traffic in the damaged areas, police spokesman Sgt. William Palmer said.

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“We’re going to ask everyone who doesn’t need to be in north Minneapolis to not be in north Minneapolis,” Palmer said. “Please give us time to clean up. Please respect the police line, those check points.”

The tornado ripped a nearly five-mile path from suburban St. Louis Park, where it hit a condo complex and two businesses, through north Minneapolis, into Fridley.

Many streets remained impassible Monday due to the huge old trees uprooted by the tornado, and the many downed power lines. Many cars were crushed by falling trees, which also punched holes in the roofs of several houses. Many residents were walking around their shattered neighborhood in a daze, astonished at the devastation.

Gov. Mark Dayton, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison and other political leaders toured the damage with Rybak. Dayton returned to the Capitol without speaking to reporters, but the other political leaders said they’ll help north Minneapolis recover. Rybak said Minneapolis recovered from the 2007 Interstate 35W bridge collapse and he’s confident the city can do it again.

Klobuchar said she saw a lot of damaged homes and businesses but her main concern was for all the people whose lives have been “twisted and turned, and turned upside down.” She said officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency are already assessing the damage, and that the city might be eligible for up to $6.9 million in federal disaster aid, as well as individual and small-business loans.

“I’m confident we’re going to rebuild this community and make it better than before,” said Ellison, who used to live in north Minneapolis.

Seven schools in north Minneapolis and all Fridley public schools were closed Monday because of tornado damage.

More than 200 people stayed in a shelter at a Minneapolis armory after the storm left many homes inhabitable, Rybak said.

“This is a distressed neighborhood in the first place,” said Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon, who visited the shelter Sunday night. “These families are suffering a tremendous loss. They don’t have the resources; they don’t know what they’re going to do.”

With the tornado just a couple of blocks away, Addie Smith, 49, herded three of his children, ages 4, 7 and 10, into a hallway. And then he remembered his eight-month-old baby girl was in the bedroom. As debris flew in through the window, he put the baby on the floor and lay on top to protect her.

The house “shook really bad, like a bad roller-coaster ride. I thought the whole house was just going to come apart,” Smith said.

The tornado ripped off part of the side of the house, exposing the staircase and filling it with debris. But neither Smith nor the children were injured. As he surveyed the damage, he considered their luck.

“I thought we was going to die,” he said.

About 9,000 Xcel Energy customers were still without power late Monday morning. Spokeswoman Mary Sandok said. Xcel Energy expected to restore power to most by Monday night. About 22,000 customers in the Twin Cities lost power at the height of the storm.

Minneapolis city spokeswoman Sara Dietrich said the Hennepin County medical examiner confirmed one death. The victim’s name was not immediately released. News reports said the victim was a man whose car was hit by a tree. Two of the 29 injured were hurt critically. Their conditions were not available.

The Minneapolis tornado was part of a weather system that raked the metropolitan area from west to east on a swift march starting about 2:15 p.m. It was part of a larger outbreak through the central U.S. that included Joplin, Mo. — where dozens were killed — and La Crosse, Wis.

National Weather Service meteorologist Diane Cooper said damage assessment crews were out Monday trying to determine the number and strength of the tornadoes in Minnesota.