Tornado Recovery Update: Iron River Construction Review

Last night I received a disturbing, unprofessional email from the construction company we hired after the tornado. I’m still not sure if the fact that yesterday was exactly 4 years and six months from the day of the tornado makes the ordeal we’ve been going through even more sad, or if I should laugh about the timing of the email.

Back when I wrote Twisted: A Minneapolis Tornado Memoir, I raced to get it released for the 1st anniversary of the tornado. I thought we’d be done everything, and that anything left would be minor. Little did I know that 4.5 years after the tornado – to the day – I’d find myself looking up what all agencies I have to report the construction company to.

It’s been a long and sordid tale, much of which never made it into the book. So, allow me to update… you might want some popcorn for this, as it’s pretty ridiculous. I actually have no idea how to lay it all out here, either… I think I’ll just post in chronological order, going on a series of Yelp reviews I posted as this happened:

*****

September 9, 2015 : My First Review of Iron River Construction

We hired Iron River for major repairs after a tornado destroyed our house in 2011. It’s now 2015, they’re not finished, and … this review is going to be a really mixed bag.

A friend recommended Iron River to us, and they were really happy with work they’d had done. We met with the owner, Tracy, and really liked what she had to say. She was down to earth, nice, and we could tell she wasn’t one of those con artist types that had been SO prevalent in the area after the tornado. We hired her.

Things started out wonderfully. They were fast, efficient, very patient and understanding. Pete (I don’t believe he’s with them anymore) was particularly amazing. At one point during the tornado repairs, he even offered to go get some chicken soup for me when I was sick. I didn’t take him up on it, but still appreciate the offer. Tracy offered up the use of her roofing crew – directly, not through Iron River – to move a large tree log out of our backyard and into a truck for me to bring to a mill., and that saved us a ton of stress. I appreciated it!

When a problem came up (the roofers damaged the skylight), Iron River replaced it with NO fuss or charge to us. We were very happy with their service, and I enthusiastically recommended them to several friends as a result.

Once the roof was replaced and we started work on the kitchen, the problems started. We were now dealing with Rick as a the project manager, and it was terrible. He was rude, condescending, and kept giving us dates that he would then slack off on – despite having them written in a contract! – when something “bigger” came up. He flat out told us on more than one occasion that a more important job had bumped our kitchen. Well, great. I was less than thrilled about some mansion in Stillwater getting a fancy remodel, when I didn’t have a usable kitchen (ie: after a tree had come through the roof, it was GUTTED. Electrical, plumbing, everything had to be redone.). We asked for a different foreman – ideally Pete – and Tracy agreed, but that never happened. At one point, the gutted kitchen sat untouched for over a week, as we were constantly bumped for other jobs.

The communication with Rick was beyond terrible; there were all sorts of issues. At one point we had a plumber thinking that he was handling our bathroom remodel – that had never even been a consideration. Rick expected me to drop what I was doing to call the plumber up and tell him that no, this wasn’t the case. I had to take time to deal with HIS poor communication.

At another point, Rick gave us two hours notice that there would be a window inspection happening, with a three hour window of when that would happen… and the inspector never showed up. Completely wasted our day, scrambling to make sure we’d be there for it with NO notice.. For nothing.

When the kitchen work was finally complete, we were very happy with the quality of work – just very unhappy with how it had been handled. We had enough stress on our plate from the tornado, and the tons of other things we had to deal with surrounding that . You hire a contractor to deal with a big repair and get all of the individual stresses OFF your plate. We really feel that Rick added far more stress than hiring Iron River for the kitchen actually mitigated, in the end.

Things got extremely awkward for us when they had some interoffice drama. One of their construction guys who’d been working on our house – Steve – apparently had an affair with their receptionist, who was married to one of their other contractors… the guy who would be doing the wrapped trim on our windows, as well as the gutters and everything. It was all kinds of drama that we did NOT need to be exposed to, and got really weird and uncomfortable when the receptionist would invite herself over to hang out with him while he worked, at one point bringing her kid with her. I don’t believe either of them are still with the company, though.

After inspection, we were told that the new windows Iron River installed were not up to code by both the front door AND the back door. They sent someone by to install window film on the back, but he neglected to put the stickers on to indicate that they’d been treated with the film to bring them up to code. This was in 2011.

Since 2011, I’ve been calling and emailing Iron River every few months, trying to either get the information for the installer, or to get them to send him back out with the stickers, and to deal with the front window. At first I was told that Tracy would have to look it up and get back to me, then the calls and emails just went completely unreturned.

*****

September 29, 2015 : My Second (Updated) Review of Iron River Construction.
Had to post as a second review a bit later, as the first was WAY too long, Yelp cut it off and made me wait!

In May of 2015, we were hit with a crazy hail storm, and the insurance company wrote off both new roofs – house and garage. As we were 100% happy with the roofing portion of our dealing with Iron River, we thought that this could be a good opportunity to finally get the windows finished also. We called them in on this set of repairs. We heard back from them on May 13, 2015.The claims adjuster came on May 21, and Iron River sent their new Sales Manager to meet with him / us.

Mark, the new sales manager was VERY understanding and apologetic about the 4 years of nagging with no results. I told him that before we would get the roof done, they would need to bring our windows up to code, per the original contract. He agreed, and was very reasonable about it. He talked about how important customer satisfaction was to him, etc. We believed him.

May 29 the installer sent the stickers to them for the kitchen windows. June 5th, they came by with the stickers. June 25th, they received the window film to treat our front windows, and told me I’d be contacted shortly for install .On Jun 29th, They installed the film on the front windows… and found that the windows hadn’t even been installed properly.

June 30th, we woke up to see that the film was bubbling and peeling horribly. From the street, our front windows looked like they’d been smashed! We immediately got a hold of Iron River, who told us that there must have been sap on the windows to prevent adhesion. … even though there are no trees anywhere nearby, as we lost them all in the tornado. He said that they would go ahead and order tempered glass window sashes, as they should have in the first place.

Then we didn’t hear anything for a month.

July 27th, we were told that the window had been ordered, and should be in that same week, or early the following week. I asked if they were still interested in quoting for roof damage, did not get a reply on that.

August 3rd, Mark emailed to say that they were expecting the windows that week and we’d be contacted shortly.

August 6th he emailed to say that the windows had arrived, and we’d be contacted shortly.

August 14th he emailed to ask if we’d heard from the installers yet. This annoyed me, because it came off like the left hand didn’t know what the right was doing. No, we had not heard from them.

August 17th, we finally heard from Greg, one of the installer, who said he’d be calling us that week. At this point, our front windows have looked smashed for over a month and a half. Very trashy and embarrassing.

August 24th, they brought and finally installed the window sashes

As I post this, it is September 9th. The roofing company we settled on when this all started going south is currently up fixing the roof, and Mark from Iron River JUST emailed to ask me if we still want them to do the roof.

Going more than 4 years with repair permits taped to our kitchen door- that could not be closed out without the windows being brought up to code – really wears on a person. The first 6 months-1 year after the tornado was incredibly hard. We got almost everything done in that time, just a few cosmetic things yet to do. We just wanted to move on from the tornado, and not have that reminder there every day, telling us that it STILL wasn’t over. 4 YEARS! For just stickers and film on the front windows.

I guess they had bigger jobs to focus on… but I’m really unhappy to have been left hanging like that, for so long. Tracy knew the toll the tornado had been taking on us. They did SO much work, so well, and had been so good through most of the process (with the glaring exception of Rick). It really sucks to be left with such a negative final review on them, over 4 stinking windows.

Window

The window, the day after film installation. The photo doesn’t do justice to how awful it looked – the neighbour across the street stopped me to ask if we’d been vandalized!

*****

At this point, I thought things were done. We had the windows, I had left a very fair review. Over a month later, I was shocked to receive a notification that my review had a reply from Tracy, the owner of Iron River – she had not emailed me about ANY of this, the whole time.

IronRiver1

*****

October 20, 2015 : My Third (Updated) Review of Iron River Construction.

Addressing Tracy’s response:

That’s an interesting interpretation. Where to start?

Maybe with the personal attack, as I was nothing but fair to you in this review. I’m blown away that you would blantantly lie about me in response.

For one, we decided not to contract with the first person who we signed with, as the owner of the company decided that his son had under quoted, and wanted to jack the price way up AFTER we paid the deposit on our agreed pricing. He was rude, so we did not hire him. That’s it – no one was “thrown off” anyone’s property. I’m not sure where a second contractor came in?

I’ll address the “very high maintenance, difficult and demanding person” in a minute..

You guys went the extra mile at first (aside from the kitchen problems), while there was still a lot of work to be done. That is why I recomended you guys to friends 4 years ago, and why I gave positive reviews back then.

When it came to the very last bit – bringing your window install up to code – I could not even get a returned call from you, for several years.

It took 4 years of nagging you for your window guy to bring the stickers to get ANY response on that. How difficult would it have been to have him bring the stickers for the back window, and schedule the film to be installed on the front windows? That was 4 years of us not being able to clear out our permits. I don’t think it’s “demanding and difficult” to expect you to bring that up to code faster than *four years*!

The only reason we called you about the roof was because you HAD done a good job with that, and we were hoping you’d see it as incentive to *finally* bring the windows up to code. Even that took a ton of nagging, with a lot of dropped communication. We’re thankful it was finally done.

Calling for that one new project after 4 years is not “called again and again for multiple projects over the years”, by the way. You did the tornado repairs. We didn’t call to hire for anything over 4 years . We called for the hail damage this year.

I have, however, called many times in the past four years to ask you to bring your window job up to code.

Very disappointed in this response.

*****

November 15, 2015 : My Fourth (Updated) Review of Iron River Construction.

And we have another update in this ongoing saga of the not-up-to-code window.

On November 4th, I was sitting at my desk when I heard a noise up front. Went to investigate, found that the entire sheet of film on the lower front window sash (the indoor one) had just fallen off, right onto the floor.

I emailed Mark at Iron River immediately, letting him know what happened, and asked if there was something wrong something wrong with that batch of film, for the outdoor one to bubble and peel up, and this one to just fall off. They had tried to blame tree sap (despite no trees around) for the failure of the outdoor film installation, I had NO idea what would explain the indoor one just falling off.

… it’s now November 15, a full week and a half later, and Iron River has yet to reply to my email. This is *beyond* ridiculous.

*****

Window2

Window film doesn’t do a lot of good when it’s sitting on the ground

*****

November 22, 2015 : My Fifth (Updated) Review of Iron River Construction.

Two and a half weeks after letting Iron River know that their interior window film installation (which was their way of “fixing” the fact that they didn’t order tempered glass windows in the first place) FELL OFF, Mark from Iron River finally replied with

“Marie, obviously nothing Iron River does seems to please you, we have gone out of our way to try and make things right and have received nothing other than negative reviews and grief for it. At this point, we are done trying to help as there are no open permits for the windows and they have passed inspection. Mark.”

So there you go. As long as their fix works long enough to pass an inspection that’s good enough for them. Never mind that the window is no longer up to code.

I have no words for how disgusted I am with this whole ordeal. It’s a freaking window. I don’t understand why it’s so hard to get it up to code.

Expecting a job that you paid for in full to be up to code and finished sooner than 4.5 years after the fact isn’t being overly picky.

To have the “guarantee” held hostage over a bad review – that only came after several YEARS of nagging them to bring it up to code – is extortion at best.

*****

… and that’s where we are now.

Personally, I’m amused at the fact that I’m the bad guy in all this, for giving a fair (but leaning negative) review after 4 YEARS of having to nag over a job that never had been done to code.

I love that I’m “high maintenance” or whatever, because I bothered them with it when their quick fix (film, rather than installing the tempered glass they were supposed to!) failed immediately.

So now, I get to deal with going after them through the legal system, like I haven’t invested enough time in chasing after this as it is. I’d always heard the stories of how contractors would screw the tornado victims over in our area, and we ALMOST ended up with such a con artist off the bat. I just never saw this coming with Iron River Construction. “Disappointed” doesn’t even come close to describing it.

I think back to the day of the tornado, when people hadn’t even begun to process what happened, as the “vultures” descended on the area. We were SO mad to see pickup trucks full of people with lawn signs advertising construction companies pull up into the extremely narrow intersections – trees and roofs just laying in the road as it was! – blocking all traffic just so they could get there and advertise first. That our tragedy was such a OPPORTUNITY to them, that they were mobilized immediately on that Sunday afternoon.

IMG_6388

I couldn’t wrap my head around how anyone could work to take advantage of natural disaster victims in that way, at the time… and I still can’t.

On the afternoon of May 22, 2011, North Minneapolis was devastated by a tornado. Twisted recounts the Porters’ first 11 months, post disaster. Rebuilding their house, working around the challenges presented by inadequate insurance coverage. Frustration at repeated bouts of incompetence and greed from their city officials. Dealing with issues such as loss of control, logistics, change, and over-stimulation, as an Aspergian woman.

Subjects covered include: Opportunistic “Vultures”, gawkers, new friendships, a bizarre gingerbread house, unique decisions made with the rebuild – including an internet-famous kitchen backsplash, “Tornado Claus”, contractor drama, water balloons, DIY design and work, music, sensory overload, and details on how to cook jambalaya for almost 300 people, in the parking lot of a funeral home… should you ever find yourself in the position to do so. Order your hard copy here, or digital edition here.

DIY Tutorial: Recycled Wood Slice Garden Pathway

Adapting a “new” home (built in 1928, but new to us!) to suit your own style is usually a big ordeal… but that went doubly for us, when we were hit by the tornado right after moving in!

After the debris had settled, most of the cleanup was done, and we had a new roof over our heads, it was time to do some finer cleanup, repair, rebuild, and redo. The side yard was a PROJECT – it was where most of the debris had landed, the small amount of planting we’d done pre-tornado was trampled by the roofers… just a huge mess. Add to that the fact that neither of us had done any sort of landscaping design before? We were sort of floundering!

We started working on the side yard last summer, one year after the tornado. It was around this time that we were also trying to figure out what we would do with the remnant logs from our downed black walnut. We’d taken the biggest logs to a mill, and had some smaller (too small for the mill) logs milled in our yard. After all of that, we still had some more logs that were either too small in diameter, too short, or too irregular for the portable wood mill. It had been such a gorgeous tree, and the wood was WAY too beautiful to let any of it go to waste.


After the tornado

With the bulk of the wood being processed and spoken for already – mostly for rebuilding the kitchen – these few leftover logs were something we could play around with a bit.

I had the idea of slicing them all up into disks and using them to redesign the side yard. We’d already decided that we wanted it to be lush with edibles, but hadn’t really come up with a solid design, or even really tossed around ideas yet. I thought it would be a pretty, rustic looking walkway to separate gardens on both sides of it… and the idea looked fabulous in my head!

Porter was a bit hesitant, and needed to be talked into it. He wasn’t sure we’d have enough wood, and wasn’t able to picture the outcome like I did.

So, I did the math – I measured out the ideal pathway, and figured out how many square inches we were talking. Then, we figured out the average diameters of the logs we had left, and worked out how many square inches of coverage we would have, when slicing them into 3″ disks. There would be enough, so my husband agreed to go ahead with it.

While this looks like a huge project, it took about a day and a half of work, with the two of us doing it ourselves. We love the results, and here’s how we did it:

This is what we started with at the beginning of the weekend. The bulk of the tornado debris had been cleared, but we still had some construction debris in there. We had already planted 3 or 4 raspberry bushes along the side of the house, and had covered the soil in that area with cedar mulch.

As a first step, we completely cleared the area of any debris, garbage, and any large pieces of broken glass.

Next, we pulled up the sod from the entire area, aside from the section with the raspberry bushes.

Once all of the sod was removed, we raked and trampled the ground to ensure a level base for what we were doing.

With a flat work surface to start laying everything out on, I started laying out the various garden sections, creating a wavy path with cement edging pavers.

Once the main pathway was established, I filled in the outer sections with fresh topsoil, and planted the gardens. I planted strawberry plants across from the raspberries, and basil and mint just beyond that in the next “wave” on that side.

The strawberry section

We planted two types of hops – 1 type each, on either side of our air conditioner – and ran twine up to our second level deck for them to grow up. Beyond the hops, we planted blueberry bushes (which ended up failing 🙁 )

As I was building the pathway and gardens, Porter was busy in the backyard, cutting the logs into 3″ disks (larger ones), and 2″ disks (the smaller diameter ones, as filler). What a badass!

(As a note: He says it would have been nicer to use a large band saw for this, as some of the cuts – smaller logs – got kind of dangerous)

AS he finished batches of log slices, he would cart them out to me, and I would place them. I started by placing the largest disks evenly throughout the space, to create the main stepping stones. I’d work my way down the sizes of logs, finally filling everything in with the smallest disks.

This is what it looked like when I’d finished placing all of the wood slices.

Another view.

Once all of the wood slices were placed, we had to carefully fill it all in with dirt. We shoveled on clean dirt, and swept it into all of the voids between the logs.

The filled-in pathway.

A year later, this is what it looks like. Gorgeous! The wood has weathered a bit, and those 3-4 small raspberry bushes filled in like CRAZY, providing us with a ton of insanely delicious berries.

The strawberries have also filled in, and we’ve been transplanting the runners to the next garden wave (took out the basil and mint), for even more berries.

The hops have ALSO grown like crazy, and are threatening to take over our upper deck! Love it!

Not only do we love the look of pathway, but it has the added benefit of making our whole side yard a NO MOWING area!

Because we used a high quality hard wood, this path will look great for many years to come. Even as it degrades, it will only gain character!

So there you have it. Not a TON of work, with such great results!

On the afternoon of May 22, 2011, North Minneapolis was devastated by a tornado. Twisted recounts the Porters’ first 11 months, post disaster. Rebuilding their house, working around the challenges presented by inadequate insurance coverage. Frustration at repeated bouts of incompetence and greed from their city officials. Dealing with issues such as loss of control, logistics, change, and over-stimulation, as an Aspergian woman.

Subjects covered include: Opportunistic “Vultures”, gawkers, new friendships, a bizarre gingerbread house, unique decisions made with the rebuild – including an internet-famous kitchen backsplash, “Tornado Claus”, contractor drama, water balloons, DIY design and work, music, sensory overload, and details on how to cook jambalaya for almost 300 people, in the parking lot of a funeral home… should you ever find yourself in the position to do so. Order your hard copy here, or digital edition here.

DIY Vinyl Tile Flooring Installation

A few months ago, Porter and I spread out “enabler” tendencies beyond our house.

If you’ve read my tornado book, Twisted: A Minneapolis Tornado Memoir… you may recall my friend Peter the ROCKSTAR. After the tornado, he came to our rescue with landscaper equipment and busted his butt to help us dig out from all of this. A lifesaver – and we barely knew him, at the time. Now, we are so happy to have him and his wonderful girlfriend Michelle as friends.

A few months ago, Peter had to leave home for a week, to volunteer with a big fundraiser. Michelle was planning to use that time to paint a few rooms in their house, and asked if we wanted to come paint with her.

Sure we did! An opportunity to start paying it forward / back!

Except… we can’t leave anything as simple as that. While we could paint the bathroom, the walls in there had some dings and dents. We asked if we could fix those, first. Same goes with some minor wall repair in the bedroom. It’s all good, right?

Remember that kid’s book about giving a mouse a cookie, and about how if you give him that, he’ll ask for all this other stuff as well? We… are just like that. Why paint the walls, when we could fix them first? HEY! CAN WE RE TILE YOUR BATHROOM!?

Peter put his foot down on letting us completely renovate the bathroom (boo!), but joked that we could re-tile the kitchen if we wanted. I honestly don’t think he understood that it wasn’t a joke, it was permission.. 🙂

So, after he left, we went shopping for tile with Michelle. There’s this really great tile we bought at Menards after the tornado – it’s self adhesive vinyl tile, but textured and designed to look like stone. It is BEAUTIFUL in our kitchen, and works perfectly – we don’t have the cold or slippery concerns that stone tile would have, in a room apt to have water spilling on the floor.

Also, we wouldn’t need to worry about reinforcing the floor for the added weight, pulling up the existing vinyl sheet flooring, or dealing with floor leveler – unlike stone tiles, there was no risk of the tile cracking if it’s even slightly out of level.

While Porter does NOT like vinyl tile as a rule, he was fine with this. It was actually designed to be used with a vinyl grout, which also took away from the cheese factor of regular vinyl sticky tiles. All around, a great product.

Beyond the long term implications of the flooring choices, this had two other things going for it – it was relatively economical, and very easy to install. Can’t say enough good things about it, especially after all the hassle that went into tiling our bathroom (Although, I have to say – having Fibonacci sequence tiled into the wall is so far BEYOND awesome, that the hassle was worth it!), and kitchen counters/backsplash (Ditto on hassle for 159 digits of pi!).

So, given that a new year usually brings with it a to-do list of home improvements for the coming year, we’d like to show you how to install this type of tile.

Before starting, we thoroughly cleaned the floor. Tiles should be laid down on a clean, flat floor. As some of the old vinyl tile sheet was sticking up on a few edges, etc, we had to repair that first – we used a staple cut to tack those edges/corners down.

Now, decide where you want your tiles to start. For this installation, we measured the room’s main area length and width, then divided that by the total width of a tile (including the grout line extension.) As it didn’t divide cleanly, we divided the remaining measurements in two – to have an equal amount of small piece on either side of that initial row.

Using that information on where to place the first row – both in terms of length and width of the room – We laid our first row. Now, most/all such tiles will have arrows printed on the back, with the instructions to orient all tiles so that the arrows are all facing the same way. With this particular style of tile, it was even easier than that – two of the adjoining sides had a dropped extension for grout. All we had to do was to keep the corner of those two lines facing the same way (“Upper left”, in this instance):

Remove the paper backing, carefully line up the edges with tiles that had already been placed, and slip it into place:

Firmly press down on the tile to secure. You may want to use a rolling pin or a tile roller:

Continue laying whole tiles, using previously laid tiles as a guide:

While it would be perfectly ok to lay the tiles as a straight up grid, we decided to do an offset pattern. To do this, I started each successive row of tiles offset from the one before, using half the measurement of a tile as a guide to place the first one. (If the tiles are 12″, offset them by 6″, etc – Be sure to include the grout measurement when doing this!).

For that matter, if you don’t mind all the extra cutting, you could snap a chalk line diagonally across a room and end up with a diamond pattern.

Once you’ve gotten all of the whole tiles down that you can – left with an outer edge of untiled floor – it’s time to go back and cut/fill all of those little pieces.

For each section, measure the length and width – measure the width at both ends, as many houses/rooms aren’t perfectly square.

Mark the measurements down on the back of your tile, being careful to do it in such a way that the orientation of the tile will be correct when placed:

Use a box cutter and a metal ruler to cut straight lines.

Once all of the tiles are laid and pressed down well, it’s time to grout. We used a vinyl grout made specifically for vinyl tiles. Using a grout float, we pushed grout into the grout lines, then carefully scraped extra grout from the tiles on either side of each line:

Work with a small area at a time, as drying grout gets difficult to work with:

Using a wet sponge, wipe away excess grout from tiles a bit at a time – you’ll need to clean your sponge and swap out for clean water fairly often.

Once all of the grout is applied and wiped clean, allow it to dry – undisturbed -for at least 24 hours, or however long is specified on your grout directions.

Before:


After:


Depending on the size/dimension of your room and the pattern placement you go with, this is a project that can be done SUPER quickly. Ours – two rooms – took about a day to tile (1 person), and another to grout. If you go with a straight grid pattern, it would take even less time, if you go with a diamond pattern, plan on more time.

Peter came home at the end of the week, shocked at what we’d done. Even months later, they are both delighted with their new floor, with one caveat:

They don’t sweep as much, and shock themselves when they do. This is something we’ve noticed, as well – white floors don’t camouflage dirt, so you know exactly what you’re getting into when you sweep. These floors do SUCH a good job of masking dirt.. it can be a bit unnerving if you procrastinate at all on sweeping!

What is FEMA? A Little Perspective

With Hurricane Sandy being all the rage online right now, I’m starting to notice more of what I was seeing after our tornado: that the general public has some bizarre ideas about FEMA.

Being just a few days before a major election, also noticing that many politicians either have no idea what FEMA is about, or are just capitalizing on public misconceptions to boost their own ratings. Either way…

So, as someone who has been through a natural disaster, talked with FEMA workers at length, and actually read up on everything when I wrote Twisted: A Minneapolis Tornado Memoir… I feel the need to put this out there. I was witness to how our own city had used public misconceptions to throw FEMA under the bus, diverting blame from City of Minneapolis missteps and greed… so I need to speak up. A little education is a good thing!

Note: Most of what follows is an excerpt from Twisted: A Minneapolis Tornado Memoir.

While FEMA also exists to manage some logistics during the acute phase of a natural disaster – coordinating with shelters, food stations, and power companies – it’s the financial stuff that they tend to be mentioned for. FEMA is, as one friend puts it, “a checkbook on wheels”. When it comes to the financials, FEMA exists solely to make up the difference between what a disaster actually costs, and what insurance, city, and state will pay for. They are NOT a magical lottery for disaster victims to get rich off, they are the very last line of defense against complete financial ruin in the wake of a disaster.

To put that even more clearly: A disaster victim – whether individual or municipal – must exhaust all other major financial aid streams before FEMA will kick in. That is, insurance money, then state and city aid. If that comes up short of what is needed, FEMA kicks in.

I like to relate it to losing a job. When you lose a job, your first line of defense is your unemployment insurance. This is your homeowners insurance, in the case of a disaster.

When your unemployment runs out, and things get desperate… then you may end up looking to welfare. In the case of disaster aid, this would be your city and state disaster money.

When you are at your absolute most desperate, when things are as bad as they can get, and you are living on the street… the person that gives you a blanket? That’s FEMA.

Don’t take this as any judgment on FEMA. Unlike the city of Minneapolis, whose actions were governed by greed and incompetence, being the entity that gives you that “blanket” is their actual purpose. Their availability to aid any particular disaster is dictated by the numbers – the amount of public and private damage that occurred, and the amount of front line – insurance/city/state money available to deal with it.

FEMA’s not supposed to buy you a whole new house, or make disaster victims rich. They’re supposed to step in when you are *SCREWED* beyond belief, to put it simply. You don’t WANT to qualify for individual FEMA aid.

It seems to me like the public view on FEMA is that they are more like… a Publisher’s Clearing House Prize Team waiting for them as they leave their former job, presenting them with a big check.

In Minneapolis, we were lucky. The tornado didn’t flatten us, like many tornadoes do in other areas. Yes, there was mass destruction, but it was destruction that was relatively easy to recover from. Relatively.

So, we didn’t qualify for individual aid from FEMA, though we did qualify for some infrastructure funding for street and sidewalk repairs.

I can see why people in the area were upset. We would hear about all the money that the city and/or state was putting into tornado repairs, and hear “to help victims of the tornado” all the time – but no one seems to know anyone who actually received that help. (I know that some people were able to get help from the Small Business Association several months later, but that’s it.)

When anger was directed at the city – with good reason, in my opinion – the city decided that it would be easier to throw FEMA under the bus, than to admit that the city is run by a bunch of incompetent fuck ups. They’re not big on the whole “take responsibility for your own actions” thing.

So, playing on the public’s fuzzy knowledge of FEMA, the city blamed FEMA. They made it seem like a personal slight, not that we simply didn’t meet the requirements for individual FEMA aid.

At one point, the city elaborated on the “Blame FEMA” song, by fudging some numbers. They claimed that FEMA had put a figure on the amount of volunteer hours that were contributed to the cleanup effort, used it to decrease the value of the actual damage, and that FEMA was using it against the city. That we did not receive FEMA aid because of the volunteering.

The thing is, FEMA did put a dollar figure on that volunteering – but they used it in favor of the city, to boost the actual value of “funding” that the city contributed. They counted that “cost” of volunteer work against the 25% that the local has to pay to meet the 75/25 share of the cost of the disaster.

The city is supposed to pay for 25% of the tornado damage cost. FEMA counted volunteer labor as partial payment for that. Essentially, Minneapolis leveraged labor as part of their financial obligation.

Say we had 1 million in damage. The city would be required to pay $250k. If the volunteer labor was valued at, say, $100k… then the city would only be on the hook for $150k in ACTUAL money.

I pulled those numbers out of my ass, just to illustrate. I don’t know the actual values of the damage or volunteer “value”. The point is, it’s a far cry from “FEMA is screwing us over because they reduced the damage value because of the volunteers, and NOW we don’t qualify as a result”.

I’m all for being angry over how this was handled, but the anger should be directed at those who ACTUALLY dropped the ball.

From my view, FEMA did absolutely nothing wrong.

While FEMA was able to have people from other regions on the ground here within days… even a year and a half later, no one from the city has come by to check on things, other than the inspectors with regard to permits. The FEMA people who came to our door seemed genuinely concerned with what had happened, and actually seemed like they were working FOR us. That was in stark contrast to constantly having to fight the city for anything.

FEMA has to sit back and be thrown under the bus by a crooked, greedy, and incompetent city that is more than happy to use FEMA funds to repair (some) sidewalks and roads.

Truly, I have to wonder how often FEMA offices have to replace their desks. I’m sure they end up with many head-shaped dents from dealing with all of this idiocy.

Also, FYI: FEMA has online courses that anyone can take, free of charge. Independent study courses that teach the principles of emergency management – the same courses that FEMA makes the cities take. Most classes take about an hour, and you can even get a certificate at the end of each.

In other words, if you have an hour, you can have a better understanding of emergency management than our city apparently does.

If you’re interested, visit training.fema.gov.

In closing, I’d like to repeat what I’d said as part of the Acknowledgements section of Twisted:

“Thank you FEMA, for your quick response to the tornado, and honestly trying to help us. While we may not have qualified for individual assistance, I want you to know that some of us appreciate your efforts, and your obviously caring & concerned employees on the ground here. It’s nice to know that part of the government was looking out for us, even when our local government was NOT. ”

My heart goes out to the victims of Hurricane Sandy, and I wish you all the best for a speedy and drama-free recovery.

On the afternoon of May 22, 2011, North Minneapolis was devastated by a tornado. Twisted recounts the Porters’ first 11 months, post disaster. Rebuilding their house, working around the challenges presented by inadequate insurance coverage. Frustration at repeated bouts of incompetence and greed from their city officials. Dealing with issues such as loss of control, logistics, change, and over-stimulation, as an Aspergian woman.

Subjects covered include: Opportunistic “Vultures”, gawkers, new friendships, a bizarre gingerbread house, unique decisions made with the rebuild – including an internet-famous kitchen backsplash, “Tornado Claus”, contractor drama, water balloons, DIY design and work, music, sensory overload, and details on how to cook jambalaya for almost 300 people, in the parking lot of a funeral home… should you ever find yourself in the position to do so. Order your hard copy here, or digital edition here.

Caturday & Tornado Update

Just a quick post here today, because today is a BIG DAY here in the Porter House!

Remember back when the 100+ year old black walnut tree that we had – that we LOVED – was uprooted and destroyed our house in the tornado? As you may recall, by day # 2 of being Tornado Victims*, we made the decision to have that gorgeous tree milled down and dried, with the plans to rebuild the kitchen with it.

Well, yesterday afternoon I found out that today is the day that we will be getting all of the wood back. Every last little bit of what remains of the tree that not only destroyed our house, but uprooted our entire life for the past 14 months (and counting!). The tree that I spent probably 7 months stressing out about, racing the clock to get it hauled and processed. The biggest, most irreplaceable loss we had in the tornado.

It was an emotional afternoon for me. Lots of crying and listening to 2 Unlimited videos ensued.

Today, I’m far more composed, and ready to take the next step. This morning, I’ll be renting a truck and driving an hour to the mill to pick it all up, while my husband clears room in the basement to store it all… then, the fun begins!

For us, it’s been a bizarre mix of being thrifty (It didn’t cost much more to get it processed, than it would have to have it removed… and we’d be needing to buy wood to rebuild the kitchen anyway!), not wasting (The idea of it being mulched along with so many other downed trees was heartbreaking), sentimentality (We’ll forever have a reminder of what happened, and feel like we were “Doing right” by the tree… however “hippie” that may sound!)… and spite.

Yep, for us…. it feels a bit like giving a resounding “Fuck you TOO!” to mother nature. Also a bit like displaying the head of an enemy up on a post, as a warning to other would-be invaders.

Yes… it’s going to feel great to have the kitchen finished, for so many reasons.

I digress – CATURDAY!

So, one of my friends / tweeps sent me a link this week: An article about a cat video festival, which just so happens to be going on only a few short miles from us.

Yes. This. Exists.

So, I felt the need to submit a few videos of our babies. I have no idea if I’m biased or not, but I love these videos… hope you enjoy them as well!

* Though we have at least 5-6 months to go in repairs, we’re not Tornado Victims anymore… we’re Tornado BADASSES.

On the afternoon of May 22, 2011, North Minneapolis was devastated by a tornado. Twisted recounts the Porters’ first 11 months, post disaster. Rebuilding their house, working around the challenges presented by inadequate insurance coverage. Frustration at repeated bouts of incompetence and greed from their city officials. Dealing with issues such as loss of control, logistics, change, and over-stimulation, as an Aspergian woman.

Subjects covered include: Opportunistic “Vultures”, gawkers, new friendships, a bizarre gingerbread house, unique decisions made with the rebuild – including an internet-famous kitchen backsplash, “Tornado Claus”, contractor drama, water balloons, DIY design and work, music, sensory overload, and details on how to cook jambalaya for almost 300 people, in the parking lot of a funeral home… should you ever find yourself in the position to do so. Order your hard copy here, or digital edition here.

“Happy Anniversary” Seems like a Weird Thing to Say… for a Tornado.

Today marks the first anniversary of our tornado, here in North Minneapolis. I am completely overwhelmed with my thoughts, so you’ll have to excuse me if this post is all over the place.

This is such a weird time of year for us, with all of the focus on the anniversary. Some coverage is negative, some is positive and hopeful – both with good reason. There was an awful lot of both good AND bad throughout this whole ordeal. I look back on our own experiences, and it’s exhausting.

I’m so tired. My husband is so tired. I’m completely sick of construction, and of most of our formerly-free time being dedicated to it. I can’t wait to be done with it – I’ll never want to see a plank of plywood or a power tool again!

On the other hand, our progress is spectacular. I am completely in love with our new back yard, even though it’s not finished. The exterior of our house is super cute – it may have been a ton of work, but DAMN it looks good! Our kitchen is coming along great – so much more amazing than I ever could have imagined when we bought the house. While sometime sit feels like we’ll never be done, at others I can’t help but marvel at how much we’ve accomplished in 1 year.

As with my feelings on our progress are very mixed, so are my feelings on people. (more…)

So… You’ve Been Hit by a Tornado.

Note: I am intentionally NOT including photos in this article, as I know that I sure didn’t want to see such photos right after I went through this. Links point to blog entries that can have photos, however

We’re now at just over 9 months since having our own lives turned upside down by the May 22, 2011 Minneapolis tornado. We’re far along enough in our repairs , that we’re more able to notice what’s going on in the rest of the world… right in time for a major tornado season. Awesome. :/

Watching the coverage of the insane amount of Tornadoes that hit on Friday was incredibly rough. While a lot of the imagery was far beyond what we experienced here last spring, it stirred up a lot of extremely vivid memories of those first few days.

I’ll be honest – just hearing “Tornado Cleanup Forecast” made me tear up. I remember what it was like, not having an intact roof, and just dreading rain in the forecast. I remember listening to the rain fall on our tarp, just dreading any further damage as a result. I’ve never felt so powerless in my whole life… NOT a great feeling.

It’s now four days since the tornado outbreak, so I’m assuming a lot of the immediate must-dos have been taken care of – I’ve seen many to-do lists in the media. Turn the power off, etc. It’s great, but I’m not seeing any “been there, done that” type real-world advice for what to consider next. You know, the kind of advice I could have used at that point in the game.

So, in the interest of paying forward some of the help we received in our time of need, I’d like to offer up some tips based on the lessons we’ve learned. Most of these may seem like little things, but will go a long way to keeping you sane, whether now or down the road. (more…)

Tornado Updates – Finished Exterior: A Progression of Pics

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My tornado memoir – “Twisted” was released on 05/22/12! click here for more details, or to purchase!
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So, I’ll be completely without a kitchen for a little while now, having removed *everything* but the appliances, in order to prepare for the cabinet making.

Not the best situation for a food blogger, so… rather than let this blog go stale, I’ll take the time to post repair/renovation tornado updates! Today: The exterior! (more…)

Tornado Updates – Finished Bathroom (With pics!) and more.

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My tornado memoir – “Twisted” was released on 05/22/12! click here for more details, or to purchase!
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Wow, it’s been a LONG few months here!

A you may recall, I demolished the bathroom– by myself! – back at the end of June. We’ve been picking away at the repairs and renovations in there ever since.

WELL. We’re finally DONE! YES! It feels so good to have a fully functional bathroom!

Let me share the photos! First, a couple before shots… it really was an ugly bathroom…

ugly bathroom (more…)

Withstanding Meltdown in the Face of Tornado Aftermath

While everyone I know has the next week and a half filled with family, friends, relaxation, and fun.. we’re using the time off work to make a big dent in our tornado repairs / cleanup.

Porter will be working on starting the kitchen cabinets – and least the base structure. We don’t have the milled/dried wood back from our fallen black walnut tree yet, but I’m going absolutely insane with NO kitchen cabinetry. We have a sink, fridge, stove, and microwave stand, as well as 3 little rubbermaid shelving units for groceries, paper plates, plastic utensils, foam cups etc.

I am so sick of the disposable plates, etc. There’s no way we’d be able to handle actual dishes right now. It’s so completely bizarre and maddening to not have a proper kitchen.

But then, everything about dealing with the tornado has been bizarre and maddening. Running to our house, through a sea of downed trees, decking materials, peoples ROOFS, power lines, etc – nothing was where it was supposed to be. Coming back to our house, with our giant black walnut uprooted and ON our house, water pouring through our kitchen ceiling, the kitchen ceiling on the floor.. our arborvitaes up front uprooted, one blocking the door… Trees sticking through our bedroom wall…again, NOTHING as it was supposed to be.

In the 7 months since the tornado, I’ve had to get used to nothing being where it’s supposed to be. Aside from the kitchen issues, the front entryway, living room, and dining room have pretty much become staging areas for repair – tools and building materials and random stuff EVERYWHERE. It drives me insane to go to use the washroom, and have to step carefully over a power cord, and then move a power drill, or whatever. In the spot where a medicine cabinet should be, there’s several wood stain samples, sandpaper, drill bits etc. My tooth brush and tooth paste is upstairs by the jacuzzi, because it’s just easier to brush my teeth into the tub drain, than to deal with the bathroom issues. Plus, I don’t want sawdust in my toothbrush!

Our two offices have basically become dumping grounds for whatever doesn’t fit / needs to be easier access than the living & dining rooms. It’s extremely difficult to concentrate with boxes of random crap surrounding me.

This morning is step one to actually getting RID of the tornado aftermath in the house, once and for all. The plan is to have ALL of the building materials / equipment / etc OUT of the first floor living space. We haven’t been able to use the living room, dining room, or front entryway since the tornado.

I’m starting by clearing the front entry way, which has been used as both a staging area for materials (The bathroom tiles, etc), and as an all-purpose dumping ground/storage area. I’m talking, knee-to-hip deep filled with various crap. It’ll be like a geological research mission, by the time I get to the bottom. I don’t even know what’s down there, closer to the floor.

Had a really hard time coming up with motivation this morning. I want to be able to enter the house without seeing “aftermath” anymore… but I just look at the pile, and feel totally overwhelmed. It took several attempts – each time walking over to the area, looking at the piles of random crap, pausing to work up some courage, feeling overwhelmed, and walking back to my computer – before I even started.

I had to take a few small breaks, but I was making good progress. At one point, NKOTB’s “Hangin Tough” came on the radio, and I felt like I was in an 80s movie montage. Had to giggle at the feeling.

But then, it started. The first few, familiar strains of the crescendo of a meltdown. You know, I really have way more to worry about than to have to try and control myself through this. Here’s one of the few times I wished I was a bit more neurotypical.

I don’t like thinking about the tornado, and all of the mess it’s caused the past 7 months… so I wasn’t starting out on the best foot. Having to deal with THAT much random mess, piled that deep? Didn’t help.

Then, there’s just a bunch of little things that don’t help. Dust everywhere, which NOW gives me allergies – a new, post-tornado thing. Nevermind the feel of it.. ugh. The skin on my hands feels like it’s crawling.

Then, there’s the issue of not knowing what’s down there, but having a keen knowledge of the possibilities. We’ve had a mouse in the house since the tornado. We’ve had ever manner of creepy crawly awful, disgusting bug in here. That’s just what happens when you have holes through your walls, and are missing a good chunk of roof for a couple of weeks.

Doesn’t make it any better for me, of course. I don’t mind mice so much, WHEN they are in a cage. It’s the random popping-out of places they should not be that freaks me out. I’m really sensitive to sudden movement, which is why bugs and mice bother me so much. I wouldn’t say I’m skittish overall, but yeah – that kind of sudden movement freaks me out. So, with every piece of material or equipment I move, I’m sort of steeling myself for something to jump out at me. It’s not good on the nerves to be on that kind of guard!

Then, there is the texture thing. This may be the worst part of all, for me. Man, I wish we had workers gloves here – we tore through them all when doing the patio.

I CANNOT handle certain textures. As a kid, I couldn’t touch chalk. I had to endure all sorts of ridicule for it, for having to wrap a paper towel around chalk if I was forced to use it.. a new one each time, because it would invariably pick up chalk dust from the ledge. Ugh.

As an adult, we had to be very careful picking out our bathroom tiles, for the same reason. There were a few that I just couldn’t even touch, to put them in the cart. I’m not the BEST with the ones we picked out, as far as the sides/backs go – but my husband handled them for the most part, I used gloves when setting them, and now they’re fine.

Well, now I have to touch the leftover tiles, along with other textures that skeeve me right out. Stuff with dust and dried dirt on them are bad enough.. but there are a bunch of leftover pieces of “Cement board” that we used for behind the shower tiles. HOLY SHIT, that stuff is just as bad as chalk. I pick up a piece, and I can feel my skin crawl. It starts at the tips, and radiates out to almost my wrists. It’s a slow, creepy crawl… and it feels like the moisture just drains out, as it crawls. It’s the most disgusting, nerve wracking feeling I can even imagine. By the time the “crawl” reaches my wrist, it usually sends me into a full-body shudder.

Even now, 20 minutes after lifting a few pieces, the skin on my hands doesn’t feel “right”. I can’t explain it. I know there’s absolutely NO reason for it. I’m not OCD, I don’t have any kind of mental illness, and I certainly don’t have any weird traumatic experiences with chalk in my childhood. It just feels AWFUL.

So, I managed to carry out 3 pieces of this cement board, and then felt the meltdown coming on pretty strong. I figured I’d rant out a blog to distract myself. It seems to be working – I think I’ll go back to it now.