How the Bell Lofts flood shows the unaddressed gap in Minneapolis' disaster planning
MINNEAPOLIS (FOX 9) - It was a cold Tuesday in February, and Jessica Glover sat on the edge of a bed in a Brooklyn Center hotel, trying to summon the energy to pack her family's things. She, her son and her son's father were moving to a new place for the fourth time in the three months that had passed since a flood displaced them from Historic Bell Lofts, the north Minneapolis apartment building they called home.
This time, they were headed to the Hennepin County shelter run by the nonprofit People Serving People. It was a moment of mixed emotions. Glover was relieved she and her family had a secure place to go. They had been in three hotels since leaving the Bell Lofts apartment building after the Dec. 21, 2022 flood, and each stay had been fraught with uncertainty over who would cover the bill and when they would have to leave.
But she was also exhausted. Jessica Glover has congestive heart failure but was still working as a home health aide. When not at work, she was balancing searching for a new home with taking care of her 18-year-old son, who lives with autism, and her son's father, Lee Moore, a 68-year-old former Blues guitar player who has stage four lung cancer.
Both were in the room with her. Her son listened to music in the corner until his mom asked him to pack up. Lee was on the other bed. He wanted to help but had one of his lungs removed in surgery a few months ago and hadn’t recovered his strength.
Getting into the shelter had been an ordeal. They had to leave their previous hotel on short notice, but she heard from activists that the county had space for them in a family shelter. At that point, communication with Hennepin County staff broke down. The family might have ended up on the street had organizers not intervened and put the three of them up at a hotel while Glover continued to work through the enrollment process.
The experience left her drained. "It was tiresome. Overwhelming, really. Because you don't know where you're going to be from day to day."
Her experience was typical of most of the displaced families. In dozens of interviews with FOX 9 conducted in the weeks after the flood, residents described how, without a central place to go to for information, they had to navigate and maintain communication with city, county, state and nonprofit programs whose staff had varying degrees of familiarity with their situations and the challenges they faced.
Kate Heffernan Carson, Senior Department Administrator in Economic Supports at Hennepin County, said they had been expecting three of the Bell Lofts families to come to the shelter, but none did.
"We were expecting those three families to come into our shelter. With anyone coming into the family shelter, we help them get transportation to the shelter if it's needed. In this case, I believe we had provided a taxi service if they needed it, and it turned out in the end that they did not take us up on that offer a family shelter," Heffernan said.
Glover recalled it differently.
"They called me, which would have been a Friday. And then we set up something, but we had to send photos and stuff to identify each adult. And then that the following day, which would have been the weekend. They're not open Saturday and Sunday. So how was I going to get into a county?" she said.
From there, she said she had trouble keeping in touch with staff.
"The last thing I heard from them was that they were going to call on Monday. So that was that.I had to keep calling… I kept calling," she said. "It was shitty. It was a shitty experience. It really was."
Lack of communication ‘exacerbating the crises’
The Bell Loft families weren’t the only ones to cite the lack of clear communication and coordination in the local government's response to Bell Lofts as a problem. In interviews with FOX 9, the nonprofits most closely involved in the response — DocumentingMN, It Takes a Village and Pillsbury United Communities (PUC) — all identified it as a major issue impeding their efforts to help the residents.
PUC joined the effort in the last week of January when it received a $50,000 grant from the Minneapolis Foundation to assist the residents at Bell Lofts. PUC had relevant experience – it was one of the lead agencies involved in the response to the 2019 Drake Fire, which displaced 250 people on Christmas Eve.
According to PUC Interim President and CEO Brenna Brelie, while the two incidents were of "different scales," the response faced a common issue: the lack of a structured plan with clear lines of accountability, resulting in poor communication and haphazard coordination during a moment when a large group of residents had been displaced.
"There are a bunch of different entities that are coming forward to try to help — it's government agencies, local philanthropy, and activist community groups — and they are scrambling to react. Often they're acting in silos, and so it prevents a lot of the work from actually getting done," she said. "So people want to come forward, but with no clear leader or who is running operations, accountability is unclear. Communication is really piecemeal. Responsibility is deflected, quite honestly, and then it just slows down the work, further exacerbating the crises that these folks are under."
Dyonyca Conley-Rush, director and CEO of It Takes a Village, a north Minneapolis-based nonprofit, said she felt left out of key meetings and decisions. She agreed the lack of a clear communication plan during the response had been an issue.
"Because without communication, there's confusion. And that's what happened. We were basically winging it, to be honest. And winging it with all of these people was not something that should have happened the way it did," she told FOX 9.
The nature of the county shelter space residents could access was one issue where breakdowns in communication seemed to play important roles.
In the second week of February, a group of nine Bell Lofts families staying at a hotel in the North Loop were told informed by hotel staff they needed to leave on short notice, as the hotel bill had not been paid.
Hennepin County reached out to residents saying that, per county police, families with children had a right to space in a family shelter and there was room for all of them in the overflow shelter, a converted hotel in Bloomington.
But residents were wary. Some had previously stayed at shelters and had bad experiences. Others told FOX 9 they heard rumors of open drug use at the shelter.
Carson said there was no open drug use at the shelter, and the stigma associated with shelters is often a challenge county workers face when doing outreach.
"It's scary because there's stories and messages out there that make it maybe seem like it's an unfriendly or scary place. But in Hennepin County, we have a ‘Shelter All Families’ policy. The family shelter system is really focused on supporting children and keeping children safe. And so our staff spend a lot of time explaining to people what that shelter experience is like. And it's really about kind of meeting people's basic needs, being a safety net for people," she said.
Residents pointed to news articles and negative reviews of hotels used as shelters in Bloomington. Carson said the news articles were about other shelters, and the reviews pertained to a period during the COVID-19 pandemic when it was a shelter for single men. In September, it was converted into a family shelter with different rules.
"It was still a really well-run organization that Hennepin County staffed. But that was not our family shelter system. That was our single adult system, which certainly has a different environment," Carson said.
Conley-Rush thinks the county's outreach would have been more effective had they sent staff to speak directly to residents to address their fears rather than just contacting them over the phone.
"Because talking to someone on the phone to me is more impersonal than talking to somebody in person. Especially the fact that you came all the way there to talk to them. That's why I have some respect for some of the people that showed up and actually came to talk to these people their face," she said.
As the deadline at the hotel approached, Brelie wrote a letter to city and county leaders on Feb. 15 asking them to cover the cost of the hotel, but she also called for more far-reaching change, saying both entities need to develop "Policies and protocol for responding to situations like this and the Drake Fire, where many families are suddenly and traumatically displaced from their stable housing. Disorganization, scrambling, and a lack of response by our systems is currently intensifying harm."
At the time, Mayor Jacob Frey’s office told FOX 9 that the city was open to conversations about improving protocols after emergencies.
None of the nine families ended up at the shelter immediately after leaving the hotel.
Last week, Frey held a press conference with city staff announcing the steps they had taken to improve the city's disaster preparedness by implementing recommendations of the city’s after-action action report on the city’s response to the unrest following the murder of George Floyd. He did not address the issues in Minneapolis’s disaster response highlighted in Brelie’s letter and did not respond to a request for comment for this piece.
A missing middle
Monica Sanders, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center and former Red Cross Senior Legal advisor who specializes in local disaster relief, reviewed Brelie’s letter at FOX 9’s request. She said the issues it highlighted were indicative of problems facing cities across the country.
"When I saw that, my first visceral response was, ‘Well, here we go again. There's no planning,'" Sanders said.
Sanders, who has been involved in numerous disaster relief and recovery efforts both nationally and internationally, says for large-scale events like hurricanes, the federal government has a standardized structure to designate responsibility called the Incident Command Structure (ICS), which is replicated at the local level, as is the case with Hennepin County and The City of Minneapolis. The ICS framework is adaptable (the Minneapolis Fire Department uses ICS on a regular basis, while the Minnesota Department of Health used the system in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic), but it’s almost entirely focused on the on-scene response.
Incidents like Bell Lofts are both more common and qualitatively different: the job of first responders was relatively simple, but what followed was a complex "recovery" period. During that time, about 21 families, many of whom were already struggling economically, had to navigate a complex set of financial and logistical challenges (such as trying to get their security deposits back, figuring out transportation to appointments, and applying for new housing), while also navigating the requirements of different social service programs.
"Whenever you have an event, and you're in a response-to-recovery framework, the first thing you need to ask is ‘Who's in charge? Who's in charge of what? And what time do we deliver it?’ For larger events, the Incident Command System readily tells us this, but when we're in a smaller event, we don't necessarily have that. So there is a need for a coordination plan," Sanders said.
Andrew Phelps, vice president of AC Disaster Consulting, which advises local governments during disasters, agrees. He says municipalities are typically well positioned to deal with smaller incidents, like the displacement of one or two families in a house fire, and federal and state agencies tend to provide assistance in emergencies involving the displacement of larger groups, say 150 to 200 families.
"But this is sort of that middle situation where if you don't have an existing state program to provide individual assistance and housing support to folks that have been displaced, there aren't necessarily a lot of resources to help these families out," he said.
Phelps, who has worked in disaster response at the city, state and federal level, believes that in "middle" situations like Bell Lofts, the lack of state or federal involvement makes it even more imperative that the local governments have a plan in place. He suggests it should designate a clear central coordinator and establish a "disaster recovery coordination center" or a kind of "one-stop shop" where residents can go to connect with the array of social services available to them.
"That's where ensuring we've got a broad network available of nonprofit organizations, community-based organizations, housing advocates, these types of folks that can come in, understand what their role is, and have that central coordinator to help give the community organizations around the same table providing services in filling those gaps that exist after an emergency like this really becomes an important part of the community recovery structure," he said.
Sanders says while most cities don’t have these kinds of plans in place, people who work in disaster relief are waking up to the problem and finding ways to address what has been a longstanding gap in disaster preparedness across the country.
"It's been around for ages. We're just now getting to the place where we stop othering it and saying, ‘Oh, it can't happen here’ and acknowledge it is happening everywhere," she said.
‘A hurting thing’
For Lee Moore, the consequences of that "gap" were far from theoretical. In the months after the flood, he watched the mother of his child and former partner, Jessica, struggle to take care of him as she held down a job, looked after their son, and searched for housing, all while facing the constant anxiety that came with not being sure where they would be sleeping the next day.
He had hoped they could avoid moving to a shelter, but now they had no choice.
"It’s a hurting thing. Just a hurting thing," he said.
He wanted to do more to help Jessica. "I don't look her in the eyes too much, you know, I couldn't do nothing."
For a moment he froze, bent down and put his hand to his head. The pain, he explained later, would sometimes come in waves, but he didn’t plan to stop moving. "I ain't going to do that, no. If I'm going to die from this. I'm going to die with a smile."
Jessica Glover comforted him.
"You know, although I'm sick, I really am. I'm trying my best day to day. I'm trying, and it's a struggle," she said.