Monday, May 30, 2011

A Response to the NoMi Tornado: How Can I Help?

Post and photo by the Hawthorne Hawkman.

I've said it already, but it bears repeating:  Hawthorne was lucky in that the tornado left us relatively unscathed.  There are trees down in the EcoVillage, but none on houses, a few garages were hit with a downed tree, and a smattering of properties lost a few shingles.

We were even more forunate, though, in the response.  Our office was inundated with phone calls the next day; virtually all of them either offering something specific in response or simply asking "How can I help?"  Forget the isolated case or so of looting.  Forget the unfounded fears that crime would somehow be out of control (although the heightened police presence was still, in my opinion, the right call).  The real story in the aftermath of the tornado is that so many northside organizations stepped up, along with thousands of volunteers from across the metro, all of them asking "How can I help?"

Without a doubt, my biggest (organizational) thank-you goes to Urban Homeworks.  You wouldn't know it from the coordinated response, but...

...these people don't actually specialize in disaster relief efforts.  They rehab houses.  And yet the way they stepped up to the plate to manage volunteer efforts over the past week has been nothing short of astounding.  At a Northside Home Fund emergency board meeting, the mayor singled out Chad Schwitters as a leader of the relief crews, to which Schwitters humbly replied, "We're not disaster relief experts.  We're just a group of people trying to be good neighbors."

Urban Homeworks' dedication to being a good neighbor was exceeded only by that of the broader community in north Minneapolis and beyond.  Over 3,000 volunteers showed up during the week to help clear the streets, alleys, and people's homes of debris.  So many people answered the call of "How can I help?" that the coordinators had to announce they were at capacity numerous times.  Later on, we can evaluate how well the response efforts were coordinated and we'll learn what could have been done better.  But my initial reaction here is that being over capacity for volunteers was not a reflection of any mismanagement, but rather an indication of the true spirit of Minneapolis.

(I picture Christian Bale, in his growling Batman voice, as he's taking down the Joker:  "This city just showed you that it's filled with people who are ready to believe in good."  There, an accurate way to summarize things without getting too sappy.)

I haven't blogged a whole lot about the tornado because I wasn't sure what I could contribute that would be different or more meaningful than the abundance of information and photos that are already out there.  In fact, I think I only have about seven pictures I've taken of tornado damage.  I figured if I was going to do things that plenty of other people were also doing, then I'd rather participate in the volunteer clean-up efforts.

So I took Monday off of work, signed up at Urban Homeworks, and then went out with a group of people to follow the chainsaws.  Basically wherever the buzzing symphony was loudest, that's where plenty of heavy lifting would be needed to clear the streets, alleys, and homes.  Along with neighbors from Hawthorne and volunteers from Catalyst, we cleared about four square blocks that day.  Then, on our way back to our cars, we came across a family with a tree downed in their yard.  Although we thought our day was done, we couldn't pass these people by.  An hour later, we cleared as much of the tree away as we safely could, and this family could at least enter their home.

I also had Friday off, but by that time volunteers had inundated the area to the point where I had to sign up for just one shift for half the day.  Just as I'd finished my work, I saw a Twitter announcement that there would be a press conference by the mayor on 26th and Broadway.  Finally, a chance to flex those citizen journalist muscles, right?  Nope, when I got there I was quickly herded in with the rest of the volunteers from Summit Academy for the photo op.

One interesting angle from the political staging of that event:  We can tend to criticize our elected officials for grandstanding in front of cameras - and sometimes that's quite justified.  But I heard many of the politicians there coordinating with each other about who would go to which event and who would reach out to what group.  Many of the activities they were committing to were not ones that would get heavily publicized.  Our elected officials were geniunely planning how they could get to as many people as possible and ask the question, "How can I help?"

So, how can YOU help?  While I won't pretend to be a comprehensive source (I'm a week behind on newspaper reading and have just gotten my unread emails down under 150, so bear with me here.) I will offer a suggestion or two.

First, the big effort is coming up this Saturday.  The city of Minneapolis is coordinating a massive volunteer day to try and remove as much of the debris from our boulevards and alleys as possible.  They're shooting for over 2000 volunteers.  Call 311 to sign up.

If you can't donate time but still want to donate money, go to GiveMN.  For four more days, they'll match donations.

Keep an eye on which organizations are pitching in the most - like Urban Homeworks or Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity (which led volunteer efforts on Friday).  These organizations have been setting aside their typical work to really focus on tornado relief.  But the projects they set aside still have their own very real deadlines for completion, and in a few weeks or months when rebuilding gears up, they'll have even more on their plates.  By assisting these entities in their work outside of the tornado response, you can free up resources for north Minneapolis.

One of the least glamorous tasks where help is needed is cleaning up after festivities.  Ed Anderson at Cub (another phenomenal partner in all of this; I don't buy groceries from any other big store because Ed and Cub have been such great neighbors.) has asked for help in taking down chairs and tables after events.  It's not as splashy as other work, but it still needs to be done.  And since it happens at the very end of the day, it can often feel like the most taxing work of all.

Finally, north Minneapolis was emerging from a foreclosure and economic crisis that was well underway before the tornado hit.  The strength and resilience of our community hasn't often been given its due, but there's still plenty of work to do that's not related to the storm at all.  If you help out in any way you can, we'll surely appreciate it, and thanks.

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