Kicked out for doing good: Hastings man who volunteered on scene of north Minneapolis tornado was thrown out
For a few years, Mike Haege's sister lived in north Minneapolis. He knows the neighborhood at least a little bit, and when a tornado tore through the area on Sunday, May 22, he took notice.
On the news he saw trees strewn about lawns and streets. Then inspiration struck. He wanted to help. His schedule for Monday, May 23, was wide open. And, since he operates Custom Cut, a tree trimming business here, he figured his services could be put to good use.
"I thought it would be the perfect chance to help," he said. "I knew there would be people needing help."
He was right. By 10:30 a.m. Monday, he was signing paperwork with the Urban League to be a volunteer. He signed a waiver, hopped back into his truck and headed off to help out. The Urban Homeworks sent along a couple volunteers with him, too.
Tree trimmers who work in Minneapolis need to be licensed with the city. It's a regulation in place throughout many cities, and something Haege knows all about. He's licensed in Hastings and several area cities. Since he doesn't work in Minneapolis, he isn't licensed there.
All that was moot, of course. He was just going to volunteer and was not charging residents for his services.
He had brought a bucket truck to get high if needed, and he brought a wood chipper to dispose of fallen trees. He and the volunteers got to work on homes where the resident didn't have insurance.
"We were removing stuff so people could get out of their driveways and out of their doors," he said. "The place was a pretty big disaster."
What happened next shocked Haege.
A city inspector arrived at the scene. She told Haege he had to leave. Immediately.
"You have to leave right now," the inspector told Haege. "You're not licensed to be here."
"I said, 'I'm just a volunteer,' and she didn't believe me."
Haege went back to his truck and got his volunteer paperwork. Still, that did little to get the inspector off his back.
"I don't want to see you up here," she told him.
"She just didn't believe me," he said.
A volunteer from the Urban Homeworks, who had been with Haege since he signed up to volunteer that morning, did his best to convince the inspector that Haege wasn't charging for his services.
Residents then came out of their doors in his defense, telling the inspector that he had just performed work at their house and hadn't charged them a dime. Still, the defense fell on deaf ears.
The inspector told him to get out of the city, so Haege left with the volunteer. As they were on their way back to the volunteer area, residents waved down Haege, pleading for help. He pulled over and helped get a tree out of the way for them.
Haege had no idea police officers were behind him in a sort of unofficial escort out of town. He said they stopped traffic for about two hours while they figured out what to do with him. At one point, officers threatened to throw him in jail, he said.
All the while, residents continued defending him, screaming in his defense.
Officers told him to leave. They told him he was going to receive a "hefty fine" in the mail, and that if he stopped on the way out, the fine would be doubled.
Much of this exchange can be heard on a cell phone video that Haege took.
Finally, Haege was cleared to leave. He went to the volunteer hub, checked out and went home. Last he knew, he was going to receive a citation in the mail for trimming trees without a license in Minneapolis, which he heard was a $400 fine.
Haege's business has an A rating with the Better Business Bureau.
Why the city inspector didn't believe, and why the police didn't, is something that still confuses Haege.
"I don't know (why they didn't believe me)," he said. "Who knows. They were just rude to me in front of the residents. There were people yelling at the cops. I don't know. They don't believe someone would just help out."
Helping out is nothing new to the Haege family.
Haege's wife Kari has been profiled numerous times in this newspaper for the work she has done to raise money for the Orphan Grain Project in Liberia. She has raised tens of thousands of dollars for a remote village there, including about $12,000 to purchase a grain truck.
The couple is active at Calvary Chapel in Red Wing, running a Bible study group out of their house. They are in the process of adopting a child from Uganda.
"I happened to have a day off, and I happened to get run out of the city for no reason," he said. "It was really kind of disturbing. Going up there, thinking you'll be welcomed. The residents welcomed me. They were very grateful, but the Gestapo wasn't."
Haege got more bad news in the mail Wednesday afternoon. He received a $275 fine from the City of Minneapolis.