Apartment Fire Survivor “Worse than Back to Square One”

On Friday, March 9, 2012, a fire burned an apartment building in Minneapolis. That afternoon at the Red Cross service center volunteer relief worker Kevin Berger spoke with two people affected by this disaster and learned more about them.

Kimberlee Overvold and Carl Robinsen survived the March 9, 2012, St. George apartment fire in Minneapolis. Photo credit: Kevin Berger/American Red Cross

Kimberlee Overvold was at the temporary Red Cross service center just a few blocks from where she had lived for 11 months before a fire destroyed the St. George apartment building on 17thStreet. She was trying to collect herself and figure out her next steps. Overvold and her boyfriend were in the process of finding a bigger apartment but then the fire took it all away. Overwhelmed with the emotion of the situation she said,“I keep thinking I’m going to wake up and it’s going to be a dream.”

They had just gone to bed around 1:45 a.m. when the fire alarms sounded at 2 a.m. Kimberlee said at first they thought it was a false alarm because even as they headed out of the building there was no signs of smoke or fire. However, it wasn’t long before flames rushed through the building and they found themselves meeting up with their neighbors in a bus temporarily used as a shelter.

Before moving into the St. George apartments she had been homeless for nearly 2 years. Back then she said at least she had some possessions, but now “I’m worse than back to square one” as she’s lost everything. Pointing at herself with her mobile phone in hand, she said, “this is my living room now as all my stuff is gone.”

She reflected on some of her family pictures and watercolors she had from her late grandmother. “That’s the stuff I’m going to miss.”

The St. George apartments burned, displacing more than 30 residents of Minneapolis. Photo credit: Kevin Berger/American Red Cross

Her boyfriend, Carl Robinsen, was also considering how to move forward. “I’m not worried about what caused this to happen, we just need to fix it.” He said they were thankful that no one was seriously hurt or killed in the building that housed 32 units. “You can’t replace life,” he said.

One concern is replacing clippers and shears valued at more than $1500 and needs for the barber program he’s just four months from completing at Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC). As lunch passed by at the Red Cross service center Robinsen was wondering if he should make his way to his job as a janitor in Edina so that he could at least think about something else for a while.

The couple left the service center with information from the Red Cross and The Salvation Army for a temporary place to stay and getting some clothes before finding a new home.

Text REDCROSS to 90999 to give $10 to American Red Cross disaster relief, helping people recover from this fire and similar disasters. Or go to redcross.org to donate even more financial support. This story and the accompanying photos are by Kevin Berger, a volunteer American Red Cross disaster relief worker based in Minnesota.

Holding onto optimism three weeks after the tornado

Dennis Parker is holding onto optimism that his family will soon have a new place to call home and move out of the Red Cross shelter in north Minneapolis for families displaced by the May 22 tornado. Photo credit: Bill Fitler/American Red Cross

“I’ll never forget that day,” says Dennis Parker Sr. while sitting down for breakfast at the Red Cross shelter at North Commons Recreations Center nearly 3 weeks after the tornado ripped through north Minneapolis.

“It started raining, it got real windy. I didn’t hear the siren until it was all over,” recalls Parker. “When the tornado came, it sounded like a bunch of trains. Bang! Bang! Bang! The tornado ripped the trees right out of the ground. It laid down five of them on our house, and we had a tree limb in our attic. Our basement flooded. It didn’t touch the neighbors on either side of us.”

Parker’s speech is animated as he describes how he, his wife, and four children sought refuge in their house during the storm, but his voice loses some intensity as he shares details about his family’s experiences looking for a new place to call home.

“My wife is in the computer room looking for other places for us to live. We’ll go visit anything she finds, and then we may go to the library. Yesterday we checked out a couple of apartments, but landlords don’t want to rent to us because we’re low income.”

Cots placed in a circle help families create personal spaces in the Red Cross shelter sleeping area at North Commons Recreation Center in Minneapolis. Photo credit: Amanda Mark/American Red Cross

For Parker, shelter life is something he has come to accept. The shelter’s sleeping area is in the North Commons gym. While not very private, each family has tucked their cots closely together, leaving any extra space they can manage between the different family groups. Families with small children have arranged a little play area in the middle of the cots for them.

“The Red Cross has been doing the best they can,” says Parker. “These people we call family, we’re all in the sandbox together. I kind of like being here. We really haven’t had any problems.”

During a graduation party held in the park behind North Commons a few days ago, and how the party organizers donated the rest of their food to those living in the shelter. He helped by cooking at the center’s outdoor grill.

That night, Parker met with a local group that’s helping people find new places to live after the storm. Parker says he’s holding onto optimism for him and his family.

“They were very uplifting, very reassuring,” he says. “They say ‘soon.’ Maybe we’ll find out today.”

(Reporting by Bill Fitler, Red Cross disaster relief volunteer)