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As they did a year ago, tornado-battered Lucy Laney community comes together

The staff and students of the North Minneapolis school commemorate the first anniversary of the tornado that tore apart their neighborhood and many families’ lives.

Lucy Laney students

At the end of the day Tuesday, as quietly as 625 kids can do anything, Lucy Laney Community School’s student body filed onto the athletic field behind the building and took up places, class by class, on a circle spray-painted onto the ground.

Older kids passed out pale blue helium balloons and Principal David Branch stepped into the center of the circle. He was carrying a megaphone, which he raised to his lips a couple of times, only to lower it.

After a few moments Branch released his balloon, signaling the kids to follow suit. For a few seconds, they looked like so many glowing bubbles.

Up until that moment the ceremony, held to commemorate the anniversary of the tornado that chewed a path through the school’s North Minneapolis neighborhood, was wordless.

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The lack of any formal remarks seemed fitting. There was so much talking in the Lucy Laney building in the days after the storm when the gym filled up with donated food and sundries.

When kids first trickled back, they were peppered with questions from grownups who wanted to hear their stories, listening as they did for unmet needs. Never mind that many, including principal Branch, were living in exactly the same circumstances.

One-fourth of the school’s students lacked a consistent place to lay their heads at night, a percentage that mushroomed in the days after the tornado. Astonishingly, some showed up the day after the storm. Lucy Laney, which was undamaged, became a touchstone.

When the tornado came, Robert Tucker, who is in the eighth grade, had just gone to the window, curious about what looked like a black cloud. He saw a funnel cloud roaring up the other side of the street, chewing up houses and cars.

“My mom kept asking me whether it was coming,” he said Tuesday, shortly before a bell rang, calling him to the ceremony. “But I was too shocked to say anything.”

Moments later, there was a tree in the kitchen and a sea of broken glass in Robert’s bedroom. When he went back to school, it was to get provisions. Forced to move, his family was relatively lucky, finding someplace to land within three weeks.

Ordeal notwithstanding, Robert will graduate from the pre-K-8 program in a few days. In late summer, he starts high school at Edison, where he hopes to study Spanish and music. He is, he allows, a fierce drummer.

Cheemeng Xiong, who is also in eighth grade at the school, remembers a pause of just a few seconds between the sirens and the tornado literally hitting his house. Miraculously, it was long enough for him, his six brothers and sisters and his parents to crowd into the basement, which didn’t feel like much of a haven after the storm blew out a window.

“My ears just heard a screeching,” he said. “That’s all I heard.”

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When they came upstairs, they had to tunnel through wreckage to get out of the house. Every single window was gone, as was the porch.

He didn’t go back to school for a week, during which a Red Cross truck brought food. Also lucky in the relative scheme of all things post-tornado, he did not have to move. His parents, who are from Laos and Thailand, own the house, which they fixed.

Cheemeng has been on the honor roll for almost the whole year. He will enroll in Patrick Henry High.

Seventh-graders Brandon and Leanne Young’s mother had given up paying the sirens much attention. They were so frequent she was never sure when they meant something, the kids explain. She went outside this time and realized it was no false alarm.

Their sister was upstairs sleeping, but their father sprinted to grab her and made it into the basement in time, Leanne said. She was too scared to remember the noise of the storm itself but recalls the immediate aftermath.

“We all went upstairs and you could hear people screaming for help,” she said. “My dad stepped on an electrical wire.”

The house was knocked askew. Brandon says it twisted sideways on its foundation, while Leanne says the middle part sank down. In any case, they agree, boards cracked and walls broke and their landlord wouldn’t fix anything.

They, too, ventured back to school for supplies, which showed up in trucks from Target and Wal-Mart and Minnetonka Public Schools, whose students gave enough stuff that Lucy Laney’s staff sent some of it to neighboring schools.

Between the large size of their household and their parents’ disabilities, they only managed to move recently. Still, Brandon made the honor roll twice. Leanne has posted good grades, too.

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“In one year, this community hasn’t fully recovered,” said Alphonzo Knox, a special-ed assistant at the school. The tornado bobbed up mysteriously when it got to his block, touching down again on the next one.

At the moment the funnel was skipping over Knox’s house, he was in a class, being recertified as a disaster relief responder. The lights flickered and cell phones started jangling. He spent the following days putting his training to work helping his neighbors — and his pupils.

The balloons Lucy Laney’s survivors released Tuesday were the same shade as the sky, and as they disappeared the students whooped and cheered.

Lucy Laney balloon release
MinnPost photo by Beth HawkinsLucy Laney students releasing their balloons.

The cheers were followed by Popsicles, which were followed by the arrival of Mayor R.T. Rybak — who dove into the sea of small, sticky people and started dispensing lessons in the value of a firm handshake with eye contact. Giggling as they bounced off, a few of the kids tried it out on anyone who was handy.

For a moment, anyhow, people just seemed happy to be there.

Mayor Rybak greeting Lucy Laney students
MinnPost photo by Beth HawkinsMinneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak greeting Lucy Laney students following the balloon release.