Chue Or carried his cousin Alex Xiong, 2, as he made his way through the tornado damage at Queen and 23rd avenues N. in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Monday, May 23, 2011. Credit: Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

It was unnaturally quiet when Makeda Zulu-Gillespie left a Sunday church service in the Harrison neighborhood of north Minneapolis on May 22, 2011. 

Then the sky turned green, she recalled, and a violent storm touched down in nearby Theodore Wirth Park. She and her family took refuge in the church as the tornado raged.  Calls started coming from family, friends, and neighbors checking on each other. 

“Our family specifically was very lucky,” she said. “Our house wasn’t touched, but if you walked one block you saw full trees down everywhere.”

Zulu-Gillespie is a lifelong Northside resident and the director of the University of Minnesota’s Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center, which is based in north Minneapolis. Her Jordan neighborhood was among the most damaged by the 2011 storm. 

That storm was an EF1 tornado. When it ripped through north Minneapolis 10 years ago, it tore a diagonal route northeast from Theodore Wirth Park on the border with Golden Valley through the Camden neighborhood and into Fridley. The storm displaced hundreds, left thousands without power for days, and decimated the urban forest in north Minneapolis. 

A tarp is placed on a roof of a damaged home on N. Knox Avenue in Minneapolis, Minn. Monday, May 23, 2011. Credit: Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News
The same block in May 2012. Credit: Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

Evidence of the storm still is visible a decade later on blocks with juvenile trees and new roofs. People were displaced from their homes and moved out of the city, Zulu-Gillespie said. The experience also taught residents how to set up networks of mutual aid to help each other in times of crisis, a lesson that has proved sadly useful during traumatic events in recent years, most recently the coronavirus pandemic and the murder of George Floyd. 

A University of Minnesota exhibit sees evidence of environmental racism in what it called an inadequate government response to the storm in historically Black north Minneapolis, where poverty and pollution rates are high. Environmental racism describes the ways that communities of color are subjected to the heaviest impacts from pollution and natural disasters. 

Community members were forced to band together to take care of one another, according to the report, “Environmental Racism in the Aftermath of Natural Disaster,” which is currently featured in the Bell Museum’s Climates of Inequality exhibit. Its authors contend the government response failed to take into account the historical disinvestment in north Minneapolis, where the majority of residents are people of color. 

“It’s the aggregation of these impacts and injustices that have the biggest effect,” said professor Kevin Murphy, who oversaw the project. 

Community rallied together

Several organizations stepped up to coordinate relief efforts and assist neighbors hurt by the tornado. One of the largest was Sanctuary Covenant Church, a multiethnic, Black-led congregation founded in 2003. 

Rose Lee-Norman, currently associate pastor, was working in the children’s ministry for Sanctuary in 2011. The church is located on West Broadway today, but at the time was holding services at a local middle school and had offices near 37th Street and Emerson Avenue, right in the path of the storm. 

The area near the office “was like a warzone,” with fallen trees everywhere and debris scattered about. The staff and some members had taken shelter in the basement. 

Floyd Whitfield, 59, was one of two men killed in the storm. He died when a tree smashed through his windshield near the church office. A pastor tried to help Whitfield, but he died instantly. The office building “was hit really bad,” Lee-Norman recalled. 

The next day, church staff made sandwiches and distributed them in Folwell Park. 

“We just asked people, ‘What do you need?’” Lee-Norman said. 

The group began going door to door in the surrounding blocks, taking an inventory and figuring out who needed help. She remembers sitting in people’s living rooms with no lights on, making notes on who needed food, who needed tarps, who was diabetic and needed ice to refrigerate medicine. The church hosted community meals daily. The days were long and intense, Lee-Norman said. But even surrounded by destruction, and without electricity there was laughter and a block-party atmosphere. 

Laneik White, 4, played with a hula hoop as neighbors grill food for their community on N. Logan Avenue, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Monday, May 23, 2011. Credit: Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

The Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center (UROC) studied how the community responded. Sanctuary Covenant was part of what became the Northside Community Response Team, which included dozens of organizations including Pillsbury United Communities and the Northside Achievement Zone. The team “had really great structure,” Zulu-Gillespie said, and had groups assigned to different tasks such as debris removal and basic human needs.  

“What it reminds me of is George Floyd. When he was killed, people were asking ‘What can we do?’” Zulu-Gillespie said. 

Sanctuary Covenant has once again become a resource distribution site during the pandemic and in the aftermath of civil unrest that accompanied Floyd’s murder last May. It regularly gives out food and other essential items, and has been the site of a pop-up vaccine clinic in partnership with Hennepin County Public Health. 

“I feel as if the tornado really bonded a lot of Northsiders and it’s a declaration once again of how strong the Northside is,” Lee-Norman said.  

An inadequate response

Residents had to help each other because of how the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) reacted to the storm. FEMA issued a major disaster declaration for Hennepin and Anoka counties, but only for public assistance. This meant the federal government would contribute to repairs in the public right of way, but provide no direct relief to individuals. 

The Minneapolis tornado was part of a series of storms that struck throughout the central United States; 593 miles south a tornado leveled Joplin, Missouri, on the very same day. Joplin was hit by an EF5 storm, with winds topping 200 miles per hour. It killed 158 people and caused $2.8 billion in damage. 

The Joplin tornado drew massive international attention, which meant Minneapolis’ storm was out of the national spotlight. That may well have influenced the minimal response from FEMA, the University of Minnesota project suggests. 

Lisa Dressler was working in the Minneapolis office of emergency management in 2011. Today, she is the emergency management director for the University of Minnesota. She was part of the team trying to respond to the storm as quickly and efficiently as possible and appealing to FEMA for aid to individuals. 

The day of the tornado, then–Mayor R.T. Rybak declared a local emergency, a move that was replicated by Governor Mark Dayton at the state level.  Local, state, and federal emergency management officials conducted a preliminary damage assessment. President Barack Obama signed a public emergency declaration, but FEMA declined to offer individual assistance and rejected two subsequent appeals.

“Initially there was surprise mostly because of the demographics in the area,” Dressler said. “We tried really hard to make the case.” 

The lack of an individual emergency declaration meant state and local governments, and community groups, bore the brunt of helping those most hurt by the storm. 

The city set up a shelter at the northeast armory, where about 600 people were housed for a week after the storm. Local and state government agencies partnered with nonprofit organizations to establish a disaster recovery center to connect people to services and resources, Dressler said. Shuttles were run to 10 different satellite help centers for residents. 

Large national groups like FEMA and the Red Cross had to be redirected multiple times because of poor communication with the community, Zulu-Gillespie said. North Minneapolis, she believes, is like a small town. People there have wisdom, knowledge, and skills. In response to a crisis, officials should create a space for community members to gather and work together.

“It was a community before the disaster hit, so there were people that the community trusts,” she said.  

Environmental racism 

Murphy’s public history students were assigned with putting important issues like environmental justice into historical context. The class was discussing the response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, largely considered a failure by the federal government to help a majority Black city, and students also became interested in the 2011 tornado. 

The interest resulted in a report now featured as an exhibit called “Environmental Racism in the Aftermath of Natural Disaster.” 

North Minneapolis is well documented as being one of the most polluted areas in the state, with disproportionately high rates of asthma. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has a special project monitoring air quality in the area. Natural disasters make matters worse. 

“Natural disasters aren’t just natural disasters, they exacerbate existing inequalities,” Murphy said. 

When the federal government determined individual assistance wasn’t needed it meant a long and difficult recovery process, the students found. 

“The community is a victim of decades of slow violence; disinvestment, segregation, and neglect,” the exhibit says. “The 2011 tornado brought the neighborhood’s struggles into light, bringing local attention to the community during a time of crisis. This attention, however, didn’t last long and the period of recovery would be long and tenuous for many Northside residents.”

The 2011 tornado came on the heels of the 2008 financial crash, and the Northside was just starting to recover from the foreclosure crisis, Zulu-Gillespie said. Today people are more comfortable talking about white supremacy and how it permeates society, she said. But 10 years ago, fewer white people understood that racism impacts housing quality and where people of color live. 

People worked hard to stay in their homes through the mortgage crisis, only to have the tornado rip through.One family’s home was moved off its foundation during the tornado, Zulu-Gillespie recalled. They couldn’t afford to fix it, which forced them to leave after decades in the neighborhood. 

The result was a rise in homes owned by private companies and absentee landlords on the Northside, she said, which “eats away at the core of our community.”

“We lost a lot of people in that as well, and we need to find a way to get them back home,” Zulu-Gillespie said.  

Reforesting the Northside

For Zulu-Gillespie the biggest reminder of the tornado is the trees. 

“If you lived here a long time, it’s disorienting, because trees are also landmarks,” Zulu-Gillespie said. 

There is no exact count on the total tree loss on the Northside, but the effects are clear. Aerial images taken in 2010 and 2013 clearly show the diagonal path of the storm as a tan, barren streak in a sea of green. 

An aerial photo shows the tornado’s scar across north Minneapolis. Image courtesy of MPR News.

Trees are the quintessential climate change adapters. Trees improve health outcomes by absorbing carbon dioxide and air pollution, and decrease urban heat islands. Trees that shade residential spaces can cut energy bills. Underground, tree roots absorb stormwater. 

About 2,600 trees were felled by the storm on public property, according to Ralph Sievert, forestry director for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. 

The department has made significant efforts to restore those trees, a process that began with planting about 280 saplings in Folwell Park in the fall of 2011. The “Northside Treecovery” effort ramped up efforts the next spring by planting 3,100 trees. 

A  grove of massive red cedars were among the trees lost in Folwell Park. Catalpas, disease-resistance elms, locusts, oaks, spruce, and white pine were planted instead. They are about a decade old now, and in good condition, according to Joe Sparrow, who manages the area for the Park Board forestry department. Sparrow, who has worked for the department for more than 20 years, grew up in the area and graduated from North High School.

Sparrow is obsessive about restoring the urban forest in north Minneapolis. He diligently checks on trees planted in the service area each year (1,173 in 2021) and replaces any that don’t survive. 

He helped plant trees in Folwell Park the fall after the storm. On a recent tour of the park, he gave one oak a hearty smack. “Look at this tree. It’s doing great!” he said. 

Nearby, on the corner of 35th Street and Girard Avenue North, the damage from the storm  remains easy to see. Only a few mature trees remain. The roofs are new. But the young boulevard trees are a source of excitement for Sparrow, who gleefully pointed out the block has a bald cypress, a Kentucky coffee tree, a ginkgo, and a hackberry. 

Tree diversity has been a point of emphasis for Minnesota forestry departments after a Dutch elm disease outbreak in the 1970s and the more recent infestation of emerald ash borer, diseases that decimated the urban forest.

The trees planted in the recovery effort are around eight inches in diameter now, Sievert said. Many of the trees lost in the tornado were around 20 inches in diameter. It takes about 20 years for most tree varieties to mature enough to give off maximum benefits, but “you get some benefits pretty quick,” Sievert said. 

Planting private property 

A larger challenge has been restoring trees lost on private property. Karen Zumach is the community forestry director of Tree Trust, a nonprofit organization that plants trees throughout the metro. The organization partners with the city of Minneapolis to run the “city trees” program, which gives Minneapolis property owners trees at a steep discount. 

“There were huge trees in north Minneapolis before the storm. We know it’s changed so much because the big trees are all gone,” Zumach said. 

Tree Trust gave away 250 trees to properties in impacted areas in the fall of 2011. In 2012, the group distributed 450 more. The second person killed by the storm was Rob MacIntyre, 54, who died while helping his neighbors clear debris after the storm. MacIntyre had previously volunteered with Tree Trust, and a fund was created in his honor to distribute trees on the Northside.

“Every year we would try different ways of connecting with people and getting trees into that swath that was devastated,” she said.  

The Minneapolis city trees program distributes about 2,500 trees to property owners each year. It’s sold out for 2021 already. Historically the program was first come, first served and had bigger participation rates from wealthier, whiter wards in south Minneapolis, Zumach said. Ward 5 in north Minneapolis had particularly low participation rates, receiving just 4 percent of trees from the program in 2012, the year after the tornado. 

Tree Trust and city officials have worked to address that imbalance. In 2013, Ward 5 received 8 percent of the trees after a concerted outreach effort. The program began offering early access to people living in wards with low participation, including Ward 5. 

The low rate of home ownership in north Minneapolis makes it harder to recruit property owners to plant trees. The issue is emblematic of large disparities between Black and white ownership rates in the state. Just 25 percent of Black Minnesotans own their home, compared to 77 percent of white residents, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. The Black homeownership rate was 19.8 percent in Minneapolis in 2018, APM Research Lab reported.  

This year for the first time, the city and Tree Trust tried to target rental property owners. Rental property owners and people living in designated city green zones (areas where there is a documented history of pollution and disinvestment, including a section of the Northside) had first access to register for trees. 

Minneapolis received a grant from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in 2020 to work with Tree Trust to plant an additional 75 trees on private properties in the storm’s path through 2023.  

Through distribution efforts on the Northside, Zumach has learned how much people valued the trees lost to the tornado. “They just missed the shade, they missed the trees,” she said. 

Zumach estimates more than 2000 trees have been planted in north Minneapolis since the tornado. She hopes the new initiative will help get more trees on rental properties. At this point, she said, it’s a bit of a waiting game as planted trees mature.

Andrew Hazzard covers climate issues for Sahan Journal. He has worked for newspapers in North Dakota, Mississippi and Minnesota. He is member of Society of Environmental Journalists. His work at Sahan...