Month: March 2018

City has to change locks on up to 7,300 affordable housing units after locksmith van stolen

RCMP in Airdrie are asking for tips from the public after a locksmith van was stolen and the contents removed earlier this week.

It could take as long as six weeks to re-key thousands of affordable housing units across the city after key-making equipment connected to the Calgary Housing Company was stolen from a vehicle.

City staff and Coun. Brian Pincott worked through the night Wednesday and early Thursday to put in place a response plan, after learning a contractor’s vehicle was stolen overnight Monday, possibly putting the safety of thousands of residents living in the city-owned units at risk.

The yellow and black ABOE Locksmith van was stolen outside an Airdrie apartment complex, and though the vehicle was quickly recovered Tuesday morning, officials learned equipment and information used to cut keys was missing, according to RCMP.

“The equipment taken could allow someone to create keys for some CHC units,” Sarah Woodgate, president of Calgary Housing Company, said at a news conference Thursday.

The Calgary Housing Company houses 25,000 people in 7,300 units on 211 properties across the city.

“If the person who stole this equipment knew how to use it and put the equipment together with the information, and knew how to put all that together, there’s a potential they can . . . create keys to access units,” said Coun. Pincott, the chair of the Calgary Housing Company.

No Calgary Housing Company tenant names or other personal information was included in the stolen information.

Officials say it’s not yet known how many units are affected, so out of an abundance of caution, information is being hand delivered to all units and locks on fewer than 7,300 units will be changed.

“Part of our challenge is understanding the scope of it, so we’ve shot big to make sure we’re not missing anybody,” Pincott said.

Pincott and Woodgate stressed tenant safety is top of mind and police are conducting a full investigation.

“First and foremost for us is our tenant’s safety and everything that we’ve done has that in focus. Everything else is secondary to that,” Pincott said, noting contractor policies will be looked at down the road.

Mayor Naheed Nenshi agreed.

“The No. 1 thing we have to do is make sure that we’re looking after people’s safety. Particularly, some of the tenants are vulnerable and so we need to make sure we’re OK there. It’s all hands on deck. Fix this, do the re-keying, make sure we have everyone’s safety in place,” he said.

“Once that’s all done, we have to have a big conversation about policy, procedure, process and how we can avoid this sort of thing in the future.”

At this point, it’s not known how much it will cost to re-key the unknown number of units.

“There is undoubtedly a cost for this. We’ll have to see the result of the police investigation as to where that lies,” Pincott said.

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The Baker Uprising: Minnesota’s king of hunger relief faces mutiny in his bread factory

Franklin Street Bakery workers Marco Tacuri and Dena Lagace say their stagnant wages prevent them from purchasing health insurance. Tacuri has a pending National Labor Relations Board case against the bakery, alleging he was fired for his union activity just weeks before their baby was born.

Colin Michael Simmons

At this stage in his life, Wayne Kostroski can legitimately claim to be a self-made man.

The silver-haired, 66-year-old restaurateur from Edina runs Cuisine Concepts, which founded time-honored Minneapolis eateries Tejas, Goodfellows, and Bar Abilene, and runs a wholesale bakery that supplies stores and restaurants in 17 states. The 24-hour bread factory, built on the former site of a crime-ridden Super America, has provided hundreds of jobs to Ventura Village.

Kostroski has chaired the Edina Chamber of Commerce. He’s volunteered at food banks and lectured business students on hard-fought lessons from the entrepreneurial battlefield.

In 1992 when the Super Bowl first came to Minneapolis, it was Kostroski who came up with the “Taste of the NFL.” It would be a red-carpet benefit catered by A-list chefs, attended by celebrities, with proceeds going to food shelves across the nation. This “party with a purpose” made $100,000 in its first year. Revenues surged into the many millions over the next three decades.

When Kostroski was named the James Beard Humanitarian of the Year in 2010, it seemed like a cumulative ruling that he was not just a self-made man, but almost a saint.

Yet that reputation came with an asterisk. No one bothered to ask the workers at his bread factory.

Angel Camacho has been working for Franklin Street Bakery for nearly half his life. He has been pushing his co-workers to unionize for better pay and treatment.

Colin Michael Simmons

Company boy

The sweet, malty aroma of fresh bread emanates from the gently humming warehouse that squats at the corner of East Franklin and South 11th avenues. It penetrates the entire neighborhood, wafting like a lazy fog.

At night, when the lights are on inside Franklin Street Bakery, second-shift silhouettes come to life like shadow play. Through colossal window decals advertising luscious-looking sandwiches, workers in white smocks and hairnets sort buns along winding assembly lines and scuttle troughs of leftover dough across the floor.

Angel Camacho, one of the youngest workers at 30, is changing parts on the machine that forms hot dog and hoagie buns. He’s pulling bread racks from the ovens and running them to the cooling fans, helping people move pallets.

Camacho grew up one of eight children in a small country town pinched between Guatemala’s western highlands and its Pacific coast. At 16, he put school aside to help his father plant corn and sesame on rented farmland.

All his life he’d heard fables of the American dream. An older brother lived in Minnesota, flipping burgers at an airport McDonald’s. When that brother called home with contacts for a coyote, a smuggler who would bring Camacho to the United States, Camacho paid $4,000 for fare to the desert border between Mexico and Arizona, which he crossed on foot by starlight in the silent company of 30 strangers.

He had his picture taken for a fake ID in a warehouse in California, then boarded a plane for Minneapolis. Camacho soon found work at the New Delhi restaurant on Nicollet and enrolled at South High School. But within a year his brother returned to Guatemala, New Delhi closed, and—left alone to find his fortune—he quit school and knocked at Franklin Street Bakery. They put him to work loading cases of bread on pallets.

Over the next 10 years, he transitioned through every department, learning how to operate the machinery that gave life to bread.

Three years ago, Camacho was carrying a 45-pound box of plastic on his shoulder when he slipped on a sheet of dust coating the concrete floor. The box tumbled down his right arm. He heard a violent pop, felt a flash of pain. He could no longer lift the arm up to his shoulder.

The cartilage surrounding his shoulder socket had torn, leaving Camacho disabled. Months later he underwent surgery, spent seven weeks out of commission, and returned to work while undergoing physical therapy to regain strength and movement.

To managers, it was as if his doctor’s restrictions meant nothing, he says. They reassigned him to scouring burnt bread racks with steel wool, a task requiring the pulverizing force of his injured arm.

Since he was hurt on the job, Camacho was owed workers comp, but the bakery wavered on promises to pay his mounting hospital bills. He had to retain a lawyer to get his due.

Many rounds of physical therapy later, Camacho still has not regained his full range of motion. Handicapped at a young age, his wages have been frozen since his injury. Camacho says he has no doubt that his bosses would leap at any chance to discard him for a more able-bodied hire. It’s the bakery’s modus operandi, he says.

The disposable worker

For two years, the workers of Franklin Street Bakery have been trying to form a union with the power to remedy what they describe as a miserly workplace culture rife with danger and disrespect. Interviews with employees and research compiled by the Bakery and Confectionary Union both claim that 20 industrial ovens running around the clock would cause the interior of the Franklin Street Bakery to exceed 100 degrees in the summer months. Water isn’t allowed in working areas, and supervisors’ expressions turn dour the more employees ask for permission to take water and bathroom breaks, workers claim.

Wayne Kostroski has built an august reputation for himself as a businessman with a big heart. Twenty five years ago, restaurateur Wayne Kostroski had the idea to partner with the Super Bowl as a way to raise money for hunger relief. The Taste of the NFL has grown exponentially since he began the event the previous time the Super Bowl was held in Minneapolis. He was photographed at Second Harvest Heartland’s Golden Valley location Tuesday afternoon, January 23, 2018.

Multiple employees say the bakery is a disaster in waiting. They would faint from heat stroke, according to the bakers union. OSHA logs show they’ve trapped limbs in conveyer belts and strained their backs heaving pans and pallets across wet floors smeared with dough.

While supervisors barked to move faster and push harder, workers have sliced their arms changing blades on machines, and run each other over pushing racks full of bread pans stacked too high and too wide to see around, breaking bones and crushing fingers, according to the logs.

(Kostroski and his partner, Mark Haugen, dismiss the workers’ allegations as “unfounded” and “without merit.” But they wouldn’t specify which ones, and chose to answer only limited questions about the bakery’s practices by email. Neither responded to repeated requests for a full interview.)

When someone is injured, workers and their attorney Steve Teplinsky say they’re steered to company doctors known for discharging patients with findings that minimize their pain. To obtain full workers comp, they’ve learned to consult their own doctors and hire lawyers.

There are other problems boiling beneath the bakery’s surface. Sedentary wages—these days starting at $11 an hour—prevent many veteran employees from buying health insurance. The bakers union says an arbitrarily enforced attendance log is particularly punishing to single mothers who get to work a few minutes late or leave early to pick up their children.

Workers have no sick time —only PTO— so people end up having to report for duty even when they’re ill, workers complain. And if they are so flagrantly contagious that the bakery sends them home, they still get docked attendance points that could eventually be used to fire them.

Unionizing, they came to believe, was their only hope.

Bakery workers Angel Camacho (left) and Ned Neterval (right) have both been injured on the job, and want safer working conditions.

They’d tried once before, back in 2004, when Franklin Street’s workforce was nearly all Latino, paid around $6 an hour. Employees reached out to Bakery and Confectionery Union Local 22. Franklin Street fought back.

Workers held a vote and elected not to form a union. Local 22 filed unfair labor charges with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that managers interrogated workers and threatened to punish disloyalty with calls to Immigration. Those complaints were eventually withdrawn when workers were unwilling to pursue the charges, an organizer said at the time.

A decade later, about half of the workforce was unceremoniously shown the door after Immigration audited the bakery’s records and found discrepancies in employees’ documents. By law, Franklin Street had to give workers reasonable time to correct their paperwork. Instead the bakery had them work overtime, producing excess inventory while training a new crop of temps, according to employees including Camacho, who had by then obtained permanent resident status.

Without notice, managers then corralled workers in the middle of a night shift to declare that those without legal documents need not return to work, recalls Brian Payne of Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha, an immigrant advocacy group. Employees on subsequent shifts were barred from entrance. When the bakery withheld their final paychecks, about 30 fired workers demonstrated on Franklin Avenue, he says.

While workplace raids are not uncommon, employers are rarely held responsible for undocumented staff. The U.S. Attorney’s Office of Minnesota hasn’t prosecuted a single such case in recent memory. Though it’s illegal for employers to “knowingly” hire undocumented workers, bosses aren’t expected to be document experts.

That out clause allows companies to simultaneously plead ignorance to their employees’ status, while equipping them with the ultimate weapon to subdue any crusade for better conditions—the threat of deportation.

But the mass firing of Latino workers brought natural-born replacements, along with document-protected immigrants.

Rosa Baires, who was rehired by Franklin Street Bakery after a federal labor agency found merit to her claim that she was fired for her union support, recently fainted at work from carbon monoxide poisoning.

Forty-five-year-old Ned Neterval was among those who looked around him and saw wages frozen at starting rates, with no paid holidays or time off. He says he saw people pressured to work through breaks without pay, others sent home for questioning food contamination. He could not keep quiet.

He began to ask colleagues what they thought of unionizing. When word traveled to management, he found himself in one-on-one meetings, where he was warned his meddling could cause the bakery to fold, Neterval says.

Meanwhile, others were approaching the same local with wide-ranging complaints. They organized surreptitious meetings on Saturday mornings at the Waite House food shelf, a place familiar to workers who couldn’t feed their families. Like Travis Reinhardt.

Reinhardt, a 35-year-old Brainerd transplant, was living out of a car with his pregnant girlfriend when he found a job at Franklin Street Bakery. At first, he thought of himself as a company man. He had faith he could negotiate his own wage increases with each new task he mastered. When an industrial silo broke, he heaved 50-pound bags of flour into a mixer manually without complaint. Within a year, he could afford to rent an apartment.

But a tremble began to creep down his arm, accompanied by migraines that clouded his vision for weeks on end. Pinching pain in his spine seemed to tug his neck askew. He says his doctor told him he developed a herniated disc from repeated lifting.

When he asked to fill out an injury report, the first thing a manager asked was if he wanted to resign, Reinhardt says. Quitting was out of the question; he had to make a life for his family.

So he took a three-month unpaid leave. County assistance and his girlfriend’s hourly job at Nordstrom Rack sustained them. Driving her to the mall, there were times Reinhardt battled to stay awake at the wheel because pain kept him up all night.

His workers comp claim was settled only through legal action. That’s when Reinhardt realized how little he mattered to the company.

“The managers would literally bark at us to run faster, move, move, move, move, go,” he says. “If they were indeed that frickin’ busy, then they should expand. Don’t try to pressure the people who are there to work harder than they’re capable of because that’s when people get injured, when they make mistakes.”

The Benevolent Jefe

At the tail end of the ’60s, Wayne Kostroski played in a band called Circus, which gained a sizable following touring Wisconsin’s dive-bar circuit and opening for bigger names like Ted Nugent and Muddy Waters. Kostroski was good enough on bass. But what he really took away from the experience was booking shows, nosing around the bar industry, taking notes on what it took to run a restaurant.

By 2014, he was standing in a lecture hall at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, microphone clipped to his collar, arms crossed over an amiable sweater vest, radiating a bit of that old rock-star bearing. His presentation is full of levity. It’s clear he’s in his element, spreading the gospel of entrepreneurship.

The students ask about automation and employee retention. Kostroski answers boisterously. But when they ask if he offers health insurance, he pauses and restarts his answer, as if a complex response is required. It’s been four years since Congress mandated that employers with more than 50 workers must offer insurance or pay a penalty.

“Nobody takes it,” he explains. “Everybody talks about the benefits package. We have a benefits package. Many of the minorities that work where we’re at… a good number of them are working here to send money back home, so they don’t think like we do all the time.”

He goes on to explain that his workers come from all over the world, where some are used to jefes who don’t treat them well. By contrast, Franklin Street offers free six- to eight-week English courses, he says. And once a year, he sits down with each employee over coffee to chat about life and family.

“There’s a phrase that someone once told me, which I tell to my kids, ‘Be an individual that brings out the best in those around you,’” Kostroski says sagely. “If you do that, chances are you’re going to be successful.”

(When asked about the coffee and English classes, workers only laugh. The courses were a one-time experiment a decade ago, they say. There is no coffee with the boss.)

Yet Kostroski captivates the Carlson class with the karmic drama of his success, in which the essential parable seems to be that courageous ventures, undertaken with heart, are met with great reward. In his telling, Franklin Street may have been the salvation of Ventura Village.

At one point, Kostroski says, he and his partner Haugen had looked at each other, flush with the joint realization that they could become a real asset to the community by building the bakery there. He doesn’t mention it had been the American Indian Development Corporation—a nonprofit developer that toiled endlessly to diminish crime on Franklin Avenue in the early 2000s—that seduced them with a redevelopment package including more than $1 million of public funding.

Kostroski takes the same approach of businessman-as-savior in describing his Taste of the NFL, the celebrity dinner that burnished his reputation as a businessman of benevolence.

Yet in 2016, the charity filed an audit with the attorney general’s office. In the past, he’d claimed that “all proceeds” went directly to food shelves. The numbers told a different story.

That year, the NFL’s signature feast brought in about $2.5 million in revenue. Only $660,000 was awarded to hunger relief programs. The bulk was folded right back into the cost of throwing the party, including $180,000 to Cuisine Concepts, Kostroski’s company, as a management fee.

The whole truth

Back at the bakery, management responded to rising union talk by hanging signs in the break room banning workers from speaking Spanish, and claiming that an ongoing union drive prevented the company, by law, from improving any benefits. Workers took pictures of the signs, which would eventually reach the hands of the National Labor Relations Board.

Production was halted so employees could attend a series of mandatory meetings, in which company representatives stressed that the only goal of a union was to solicit dues, and that forming one could leave workers for the worse.

Employees say Franklin Street also began to target pro-union workers, 60-year-old Rosa Baires among them.

She took a leave to go to New York so she could bury her ex-husband and comfort the son they had together. When she returned, managers said there was no work for her, though she had left with their permission.

Baires, backed by a troop of co-workers and Local 22 President Bruce Peglow, confronted Kostroski at his Edina office. Kostroski dialed 911. Before police arrived, Baires spoke to Kostroski alone while the others waited just beyond his office doors.

The conversation between the top boss and one of his lowliest workers, a woman who prepared dough for thousands of loaves each night, is a war of wills.

Baires asks a plain question: Why had she been fired when she’d gotten permission to attend her ex-husband’s funeral? Kostroski’s responses are circuitous, evasive. He’s seemingly unaware that Baires is taping his every word.

Kostroski’s agitation cuts clear through the recording. He implies that Baires was dishonest, exaggerating her family emergency and lying about rushing to the side of her dead husband, when it was only her ex-husband. But he refuses to explain further. Since she no longer works for him, she deserves no more.

“I care a lot. I care a lot about the truth,” he scolds her. “When someone does not tell me the whole truth when I ask for it, then I’m done.”

Yet it’s clear Kostroski knows little of his own employees. Baires’ husband, Julio, works beside her at the bakery. He is very much alive.

Baires was denied unemployment. The story from the bakery was she’d quit, Baires stated in an affidavit later submitted to the National Labor Relations Board. She scoured the Waite House for food, where she’d run into old co-workers. Eventually, Local 22 helped her find new employ at TreeHouse Foods in Fridley, another wholesale bakery with a union and a starting wage of $14.

In the end, the union filed dozens of complaints with the National Labor Relations Board, which found that Franklin Street likely committed 50 violations of federal law.

As Local 22 president Peglow thinks back to the day Baires challenged Kostroski, he’s stupefied by the apparent contradiction between the king of charity’s public image and the way he treats his employees.

“He was just being a real asshole, disrespectful, condescending,” Peglow recalls. “And here he’s a humanitarian raising money for food shelves? Forgive me, but you don’t have me convinced. That’s not the kind of man you really are.”

Straw man

In March 2017, Franklin Street reached a settlement with Local 22. Without admitting fault, the bakery agreed to provide each employee with a bill of their rights as guaranteed by federal labor law.

These included promises that the bakery would not prevent workers from using the bathroom and speaking their native languages. Managers would no longer call them “rabble rouser” or “liar” for trying to unionize.

The bakery also agreed to backpay for Baires and another worker who alleged she was fired for her union activity. Both were given the chance to return to work at Franklin Street—only Baires re-applied.

When she reported for duty, she was relegated back to a starting wage of $11.50 an hour. Co-workers asked why she would leave the better pay and conditions at TreeHouse.

“I didn’t want to give up, you know. I mean, it’s not like I want to stay working there forever, but it’s kind of like somebody has to show these people they’re not God.”

TreeHouse understood her need to settle a score, Baires says. Plus, her husband still worked for Franklin Street, and they shared a car. When she worked in Fridley and he in south Minneapolis, he’d have to wait an hour after his shift ended for her to pick him up. The extra $3 she earned at TreeHouse wasn’t worth it.

On the eve of Super Bowl 52, Kostroski presided over his 27th Taste of the NFL, a homecoming at St. Paul’s RiverCentre. Five blocks away at the Labor Center, Franklin Street workers were having a dinner of hamburgers and cole slaw with a federation of other unionists, raising money for local food shelves.

Afterward, they zipped on their snow pants and trudged into the snow and slush, through crowds of confused football fans swarming single-mindedly toward concerts and happy hours, chanting, “No Justice, No Bread.”

The way Kostroski sees it, Franklin Street has been the target of a personal corporate campaign. The National Labor Relations Board complaints were “unfounded and without merit,” he says.

It’s been two years since the union drive began, he notes, and there has yet to be a vote. But the union would rather conduct PR attacks, rallies, and press conferences. “A shame,” he says, “but it is beyond our control.”

But Local 22 faces obstacles of its own. Gathering signatures in a workplace with a revolving door of employees has been a Sisyphean feat. As soon as they gather a majority, workers quit or are fired, replaced by new people with little stake in changing a longstanding culture. And there can be no fair election if bakery bosses won’t commit to remaining neutral, allowing employees to organize without fear of reprisal, Local 22 believes.

This sort of arrangement, called a labor peace agreement, would bar workers from striking or protesting during the process. Kostroski won’t abide. He insists management retain the right to argue against unionization.

“We have proposed them more than once, agreements that don’t surrender our employees’ fundamental rights to be informed or that disenfranchise them,” he says. “The union has rejected them.”

Trenches

Dena Lagace is pregnant, a week away from a scheduled Caesarean section, loading trays of bread into a machine that polishes each batch with an egg wash before it’s sent to the ovens. To reach the trays in the lowest shelves of the bread rack, she stoops low, her full moon of a belly hanging heavy between her knees.

She says her doctor’s notes advised against this sort of motion. Supervisors gave Lagace the task anyway.

When she joined Franklin Street around 2014, she was a single mother, looking for full-time work that allowed her to be home with her three girls nights and weekends. She could never afford health insurance, and raises were few and far between. With no paid time off and children who were often sick, her attendance record suffered. Still, she avoided union talks, content to have a job at all.

That was until Lagace began to date Marco Tacuri, a longtime worker and vocal union supporter. In mandatory meetings when managers would try to convince workers of how the bakery was a family, and how families didn’t need a third-party negotiator, Tacuri would bring up what happened when Immigration audited Franklin Street in 2013. Lagace began to attend union meetings at the Waite House.

Soon, management told them they could neither speak to each other nor eat their lunches together, the couple says in a letter to the city council seeking help. Then Tacuri was assigned to the arduous duty of dumping baked bread onto a conveyer belt, an assignment that requires lifting pans of about 15-20 pounds each, rack after rack, and banging them hard to knock the bread loose.

The bakery’s practice was to rotate workers out of this station every two hours. Tacuri and Lagace say he manned it alone for three days straight. He believes bosses were trying to force him to quit.

When he didn’t, they fired him anyway. Tacuri says he’d gotten permission to leave work 15 minutes early one day so he could pick his daughter up from school. HR insisted he’d simply walked off the job without notice. The bakery called Tacuri’s allegations “unfounded,” and declined to comment further pending review by the National Labor Relations Board.

Tacuri had been saving his vacation time—a new benefit introduced since the union campaign took hold—for the moment Lagace went into delivery. He’d been saving money so she could take time off.

“They give me fired, I don’t have anything. You understand? … I am the man,” he says, “I need to take money to the house, take money to buy food. This I do. But no, this time, this getting fired, I cannot do anything.”

The move led to another round of complaints filed with the National Labor Relations Board. This time, Franklin Street hasn’t settled. Tacuri and Lagace both have been subpoenaed by the bakery’s lawyers for all their digital communications. An administrative hearing will take place in April.

In January, Rosa Baires whispered to her husband that she had an unnaturally persistent headache. She felt tired and dizzy—the same symptoms that everyone else in their production line seemed to be complaining of all at once. Without warning, a co-worker crumpled to the floor. Baires watched as others carried the woman into the break room. She felt her own breaths come short.

Baires fell. When she regained consciousness, she found herself propped against a dumpster on the loading dock. An ambulance took her to Hennepin County Medical Center, which determined she had carbon monoxide poisoning.

The fire department measured 280 ppm of carbon monoxide in the production area, and ordered maintenance to turn off all the ovens. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration continues to investigate.

When Baires went to the company clinic for a follow-up appointment, she says, the doctor declared her fit and ready to return to work. She protested. Her head ached still, and the suffocating weight on her chest had not subsided. The doctor insisted she was fully recovered, closed her case, and ordered her to return to work.

That day she called her personal physician for a second opinion. Her doctor concluded that she was not well and advised additional home rest.

The bakery had been poised to fire her when she didn’t show up for work, Baires says. But because she had orders from her doctor that contradicted the company’s, she could not be dismissed. Her symptoms persist, and she still doesn’t know when she will be ready for work.

She also doesn’t know how much longer she can last at Franklin Street. She says the demands on her 60-year-old body are more than she can bear, and she has no love left for a company that has never allowed her to prosper. Like the others, she believes forming a union is her only unfinished business.

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Edina doctor returns from ravaged Puerto Rico

EDINA, Minn. —- Dr. Miguel Fiol might be back at his home in Edina, but his heart is still in his native Puerto Rico.

The neurologist and University of Minnesota faculty member was vacationing in San Juan, where he has an apartment of his own. Even though he had the choice of flying back to the Twin Cities, he decided to ride out Hurricane Maria with family members so that he could be a part of the recovery efforts.

"It was like a bomb went off in Puerto Rico. That was my impression," said Dr. Fiol, describing the devastation.

Dr. Fiol volunteered at an emergency shelter in San Juan’s convention center, which housed hundreds of evacuees.

"You constantly saw people with stress reactions, anxiety attacks. diabetes that was out of control, people with wounds that were not healing. There were no antibiotics. We had no antibiotics to give them," said Dr. Fiol.

Because the island’s electric grid was practically destroyed, critical medical equipment like ventilators were not working.

Dr. Fiol is concerned that Puerto Rico is on the brink of a medical crisis.

Because there is a shortage of clean water and areas filled with standing water, Dr. Fiol fears that millions could be vulnerable to waterborne diseases.

"My concern is an epidemic because there’s just no resources," said Dr. Fiol. "The health infrastructure is stretched to the limit."

For now, Dr. Fiol is teaming up with Puerto Rican medical students at the University of Minnesota to raise awareness, collect donations and ask Minnesota companies to donate much-needed drugs and medical equipment.

"I think the emphasis right now as Puerto Ricans is to restore [Puerto Rico] and to provide the help that people need to live. It’s a live or die situation," said Dr. Fiol.

If you wish to donate, Dr. Fiol encourages Minnesotans donate to organizations on the ground like United For Puerto Rico.

In addition, the St. Paul Foundation has set up a fund named El Fondo Boricua that aims to assist victims of Hurricane Maria.

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With the EPA AWOL, Minnesota cities prepare for climate change alone

Duluth’s 2012 flooding at least helped teach the city what it wasn’t prepared for.

Associated Press

With global temperatures rising and federal action evaporating, Minnesota cities are taking it upon themselves to cut emissions and prepare for a climate they weren’t built for.

Across the state, cities are readying themselves for the dangers of climate change and working to shrink their carbon footprints. But making a city more resilient is costly, and efforts to reduce emissions can seem paltry compared to the scale of the problem they’re trying to solve.

Climate change is expected to increase the frequency and intensity of rainfall in Minnesota, bringing with it a greater risk of flash flooding that threatens cities whose current infrastructure has never weathered a 100- or 500-year flood. Since 2000, the state has had eight “mega-rain events,” when at least six inches of rain fell in an area greater than 1,000 square miles, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. There were only three in the 30 years between 1970 and 1999. The eight since 2000 included the largest, earliest and latest mega-rain events on record — in keeping with the longer, more severe rainy season climate scientists expect to become the new normal.

One of those mega-rains led to the catastrophic 2012 Duluth flood, which served as a Hurricane Katrina-like wakeup call for a city built on rocky sediments and permeated by 43 creeks and streams. After getting deluged with seven-plus inches of rain in two days, floodwaters turned roads into rapids and ruined infrastructure, inundating neighborhoods and causing well over $100 million worth of damage. The scale of the destruction was unprecedented. City officials realized unless they started making major changes, they’d risk being swept away.

Climatologist are hesitant to attribute any one storm, like the one that swamped Duluth, to long-term climate change. But, what they’re sure of is that this century, cities will see bigger storms more often.

In repairing the damage, Duluth factored in climate change’s flood-inducing effects. Duluth mayor Emily Larson (elected 2015) says the city has stopped building in floodplains, and started enforcing stricter building standards, especially for bridges and culverts. The city is also investing in shoring up existing housing stock, rather than building outward, which would only serve to cover porous, water-absorbing land with concrete.

The extensive flooding Hurricane Harvey caused in Houston last year was made far worse by the sprawl of concrete and other impermeable surfaces in that city.

However, Duluth’s changes made since the 2012 offer a piecemeal approach to an existential threat.

“Our built environment was built for the climate of the 1950s and 60s,” said Larson. “Our built environment was not built for this.”

The prospect of more intense rainstorms has made storm water management a top priority in Edina, which has learned to be nimble to in preparing for floods in a suburb that’s been almost completely built out over the decades.

“We’ve got parts of town that are in the floodplain that were never in the floodplain before,” said Edina mayor Jim Hovland. “We’re steadfast in trying to figure out some solutions.”

One of those solutions is to repurpose land to help absorb flood water. Edina’s Fred Richards Gold Course closed in 2014, and last July, the city council approved a master plan for a new park on the land that includes a “nature bank,” a restored wetland that stores water and makes the area more resilient to flooding.

“Citizens in our town have a keen interest in a safe and protected environment,” says Hovland.

Adapting to climate change is a pricey proposition. Duluth’s recovery was helped along by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds, and Edina is a relatively populous and economically secure suburb. Smaller, less wealthy towns are struggling to find funds for proactive measures.

The city of Carver on the bank of the Minnesota River is also trying to prepare for the next big rainstorm. Carver Mayor Mike Webb says concern for residents in his town increased after a flood damaged the city’s levy two years ago. But the price tag associated with improving the levy has proven too steep. Webb said he’d like to get the levy certified by FEMA — which would require rebuilding most of it — but the funds just aren’t there for a small exurb of 4,600 people. Even the initial $350,000 feasibility study is prohibitively expensive.

“We don’t have the funding to fix our levy,” said Webb. “All we can afford is the bandage every year.”

Funding for infrastructure to make communities — especially smaller ones — better prepared will be a major issue going forward, according to Laura Millberg, a sustainable development planner for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

“These places do not have the tax bases to adapt,” Millberg says. “The challenge is for our state government to help our local government.”

The state is offering to help local governments through the GreenStep Cities program, which Millburg serves on as a best practices advisor. Since its creation in 2010, the non-regulatory program has advised cities on becoming more sustainable, giving cities a toolbox of methods to increase their resilience and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

For Edina, that meant first developing a greenhouse gas inventory to account for all the city’s emissions, and then an electricity action plan laying out how to reduce its output.

“Our residents really want us to be environmentally conscious,” says Hovland. “It’s on the top of the list.”

The City of Falcon Heights was a pilot city for the GreenStep program. Sandwiched between Minneapolis and St. Paul, Falcon Heights is home to the Minnesota State Fair Grounds and parts of the University of Minnesota St. Paul campus, both of which draw people from all over the state to the tiny municipality of 5,500. Mayor Peter Lindstrom says addressing climate change is a top priority, and he wants the city to be a model for what willing local governments can do.

“Climate change is the number one issue that we are facing today,” said Lindstrom. “We needed to take action on this years ago.”

Since Lindstrom became mayor in 2007, Falcon Heights has opened a community garden and an organic local food hub. In January, the city gave away LED lightbulbs to its residents for free, which both lowered utility bills and reduced homes’ impact on the planet. In 2011, Falcon Heights installed a solar garden on the roof of city hall, which now provides 25 to 40 percent of the building’s power in the summer. That number drops to just 5 percent in the winter. To compensate, the city has also subscribed to a community solar garden in Chisago County, which sends them the sun’s energy through the grid.

“There’s no silver bullet to addressing climate change,” said Lindstrom. “It’s more like silver buckshot.”

While progress can seem insignificant compared to the scale of the issue, Lindstrom is optimistic cities can make a huge difference in moving toward a cleaner future. When he’s not working as the city’s mayor, Lindstrom serves as an outreach coordinator for the University of Minnesota Clean Energy Resource Team, where he helps other cities come up with financing schemes for sustainability and energy efficiency.

Falcon Heights Mayor Peter Lindstrom shows off the solar panels that help power city hall in that suburb.

Jacob Steinberg

One unlikely city taking up the cause of energy efficiency is Warren, in northwestern Minnesota. The hamlet of 1,500 people seems remote, sitting two hours north of Fargo, but its residents take a global view of things. The city is part of the Climate Smart Partnership, a program that pairs Minnesota cities with a German counterpart to collaborate on how to be more sustainable and energy efficient.

After visiting Warren’s German partner city of Arnsberg, city administrator Shannon Mortenson started working on ways Warren could emulate the efficiency efforts she’d seen in Germany. The city government has since started using a drone to take thermal images of all the houses in town, to show residents where they could prevent heat loss and save energy. Warren also banned disposable silverware in city hall, started a curbside recycling program, and is working on installing solar panels on its new rec center.

Mortenson even bought an electric car after her trip to Germany, which she says performs just fine on her 70-mile round trip commute. She’s working on getting a charger in town to show others they can do the same.

“We want to do things differently than we have in the past.” Mortenson said. “Participating in the program has just brought to light for residents that we can make changes in our everyday life.”

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39-story condo tower would rise high over Minneapolis riverfront

This image shows a drone’s-eye view of the site, in foreground. The plan calls for a narrow tower atop a podium that will house parking and space th

A 39-story condo tower that’s slated to be built along the downtown Minneapolis riverfront could be the tallest, most expensive project of its kind to land in the city since the recession.

Ryan Cos. and Twin Cities developer Luigi Bernardi are partnering to develop the 101-unit project along West River Parkway — the first in the Upper Midwest to be designed by famed Robert A.M. Stern Architects.

The team unveiled its plans for the “Eleven” on Tuesday night before the Downtown Minneapolis Neighborhood Association’s land-use committee. Reaction has been positive, said Joe Tamburino, DMNA president.

“We want more owner-occupied housing,” he said. “I see this as a plus for our neighborhood.”

One of the proposal’s attributes, he said, is that it calls for at least two parking spaces per unit, plus parking for tenants next door that can be used after-hours for other neighborhood activities including the Guthrie Theater.

“I live and work downtown and bike and walk a lot, but you still need a vehicle,” Tamburino said.

The project comes at a time when a record number of rental apartments are under construction throughout the metro, but few condos.

Though floor plans — and prices — are still being finalized, the smallest units in the building as planned will have about 1,600 square feet. All the units will have two bedrooms, and there will not be more than five units per floor. The project is now designed as a narrow tower that sits atop a multilevel podium that will house parking and space that can be sold as guest suites and offices.

The lead design architect for the project will be Paul Whalen a partner at Stern, a Park Avenue firm with an international reputation. The firm’s work includes 15 Central Park West in New York, One Bennett Park in Chicago and One St. Thomas Street in Toronto.

As part of the design process, Whalen said he spent time in Minneapolis studying the design, scale and details of notable buildings in the Mill District, North Loop and other historic neighborhoods in the city.

“We want to bring urban living in Minneapolis to a new level,” said Whalen. “But just as importantly we want to anchor the east end of the city’s riverfront with a visually powerful statement and a community that will enliven the neighborhood’s streets, paths and parks.”

Several recent Mill District condos have fetched more than $1,000 per square foot — the highest in the city.

The tower would be built on what’s now a small surface parking lot between two small office buildings along West River Parkway. Ryan owned the site for several years but recently sold it to an LLC associated with Bernardi, a co-developer with Ryan on an Edina residential tower called Arcadia near Southdale and with Opus Group on the Velo in the North Loop.

The site is positioned along the river and Gold Medal Park in a neighborhood that’s taken shape on land that was several decades ago occupied by gritty rail yards.

Several historic mill buildings have been converted into luxury condos, hundreds of rental apartments have been built and the area is now home to the Guthrie Theater, MacPhail Center for Music and the Mill City Museum.

The tower would be built next to the Legacy, a 400-plus-unit condo project that’s under construction and expected to be ready for occupancy later this year.

As of late, there has been no shortage of upper-bracket home buyers in the Twin Cities metro. Sales of $1 million-plus listings in the 13-county metro have posted the biggest increase of any price range, according to data from the Minneapolis Area Association of Realtors. During January, there were 25 percent more $1 million-plus sales compared with last year, but a dearth of options for new condo buyers.

In addition to the Legacy, only a couple condo projects have been completed over the past decade. At the end of January, 457 condos were on the market in the 13-county metro, 22 percent fewer than last year at this time; just 59 of those listings were new construction.

In January, the new condos sold for $487 per square foot, more than four times the price of all existing properties.

Despite what appears to be pent-up demand, developers say they have avoided condo construction, fearing the kind of litigation that was rampant after hundreds of units were built before the recession.

Minnesota has one of the most stringent homeowner warranty laws in the nation, putting developers and others involved in the construction process on the hook for a decade after completion. Individual condo owners belong to homeowners’ associations that are often better equipped to pursue construction-defect litigation than an individual homeowner.

The Eleven would stand within sight of a 40-story tower that Twin Cities-based Alatus plans to build on the opposite bank of the river in the St. Anthony Falls Historic District.

That project, known as 200 Central, was given the green light by the city. However, it was opposed by the Neighbors for East Bank Livability, which said the project wasn’t appropriate for the St. Anthony Falls Historic District, which strictly limits height and density on new development.

A representative for Alatus said that he expects to clear the final legal hurdle in June and break ground this year.

The Eleven is unlikely to face such hurdles. Though it is within sight of the St. Anthony Falls — the biggest vertical drop along the length of the Mississippi — plus the Stone Arch Bridge and other historic features, it is outside the historic district so it is not governed by the same height and density limits.

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