Remembering the Tornado

“I think they just said a tornado touched down at 29th and Logan!” I said to David. (The exact address of our house.) It was Sunday afternoon May 22, 2011, and we were on our way home from a birthday party.

“Probably just another tornado sighting by someone,” he said. I nodded. But about two blocks from our house, a huge uprooted tree blocked the road. We rerouted ourselves, but every few streets another tree blocked our path. Finally when we arrived at the intersection of Penn and Broadway, we caught our first glimpse of the devastation that awaited us in our neighborhood. Stoplights were ripped from their bases, trees were on top of cars, and houses were missing entire roofs. Regular people were directing traffic while others stood and stared.

At the intersection of Penn & Broadway

We were scared. We called our parents, telling them to pray. Finally we got about three blocks from our house, and decided to just park our car and walk. We started to pick our way through utter chaos. It started to rain again and someone shouted at us that another tornado was coming. We started to run. We helped each other over and under trees and parts of people’s houses, trying to avoid power lines which crisscrossed the ground.

Nothing prepared me for that moment when we reached our house. Our garage was completely flattened and the roof was nowhere to be seen. All of our windows were broken and the furniture from the screened-in porch was in the neighbor’s yard. Inside, a tree had come through our front window and the walls were splattered in mud.

What remained of our garage

While David was on the phone with insurance, friends, colleagues, and people from church started to show up. They carried plywood for blocks over fallen trees to board up our windows, and helped us start to clean up. A huge church group whom we didn’t even know showed up with 20 people and a chain saw. They cleaned our whole front yard in less than an hour.

Our house on the first day from the front.

That first day I only cried once or twice, and it was a short burst of tears brought on by stress and shock. Later, I would cry deeply for myself and my neighborhood – for the dejected elderly man who after all of the tornado damage, lost his prize tools to theft. For the renters who had no renters insurance and were sleeping in shelters. For my neighbors who continued to live in their houses without power or windows, some even with city “Condemned” signs on their front doors.

That next week we stayed at our friends’ house about two miles away. Each morning, we would pack a small bag of food and clothes we needed to switch out at our house, and drive back to our house. Only one road was open in our neighborhood, so the drive normally took almost half an hour of sitting in a long line of cars all trying to get back in to their houses. At our house we would try to clean and organize our things, but we would mostly end up on the front or back porch sitting and staring in shock at the devastation.

And then help came again – friends, coworkers, family – sometimes people we didn’t even know. They called, emailed, texted, and came over to help or just talk and stare with us. They were the reason that David and I stopped walking around in a haze, the reason that the piercing headaches finally started to go away, and life slowly seemed like it just might be all right again someday.

Some of our closest friends, as always, showed up to carry David and I. These were the people who, only a year and a half earlier, had helped us paint and refinish our house after we bought it, and now they were the ones who came to help us pick up the pieces. They will always be my example of friendship and loyalty in the good and bad.

Probably one of our biggest surprises was how much support we both received from our colleagues. The very first day our coworkers were some of the first people on the scene. The next day I got a call from one of my office’s executives expressing concern and support. Several days later a group of over ten people from my office came with a chainsaw and helped us dismantle our mangled garage. Then, to our utter disbelief, my colleagues took up a collection on our behalf. The donations didn’t even just come from my Minneapolis office, but from New York and DC as well. We were overwhelmed by their generosity and compassion.

One year later, our house is only a few minor repairs away from being as good as new. The city has planted trees along the street, and reports from friends in North Minneapolis show that recovery is happening. Personally, we have also recovered. Seeing the chaos, shock, and hopelessness that a natural disaster brings, has given us an understanding of the fragility of material wealth and a deep commitment to helping others in their time of need.

Friends and colleagues, plus a group of unknown saints who showed up to clear our yard and board up our house that first day.