Notes From Greensburg, Kansas
On May 4, 2007, an F5 tornado ripped through Greensburg, Kansas, and leveled the town. An F5 is the most destructive level of tornado. Greensburg's was on the ground for around 20 minutes, coming in and circling around a few times, ripping apart this town of around one-and-a-half square miles. Among its 1,500 residents, the death toll was relatively low – final reports counted 10 people. One person who died was a police officer who was trying to rescue someone. According to the people I met, most had lived in or in the vicinity of Greensburg all their lives, and they were used to tornado warnings and extreme weather. Their preparation, and the fact that it hit in the evening, meant they could find safe shelters either in their own or neighbors' houses.
I flew out to Kansas three weeks after the tornado hit. Driving from Dodge City towards Greensburg is bucolic. Even the approach to the edge of town is so scenic except for the Kansas State Troopers, camped out in front of the "1 Mile Ahead, GREENSBURG has a great BIG WELL for you" sign, and directing large vehicles slowly inching their way in and out with massive chunks of debris. While I wait for a FEMA press officer to escort me into town, the local A.M. radio station announces a tornado warning for Kiowa County and that all residents and rescue workers are advised to evacuate Greensburg. The sky is darkening a little, and the trucks continue to come and go while other cars are diverted away from town.
When FEMA's Greg Hughes arrives, I follow in my rental car behind his into town. He is driving very slowly. Still I don't see much damage. And then from one moment to the next, the town, or what is left of it, appears. Or, rather, disappears. This tight-knit community, comprised of small businesses and homes, is gone. In its place are half-remaining structures, debris, garbage, nails strewn about (thus the slow driving) and trees that have been stripped of flesh.
Our first stop is the rescue workers' area – Red Cross, FEMA, food tents – set up next to the courthouse since the tornado hit. Greg was part of the first responders team charged with surveying the destruction and coordinating a response plan. For the first week after the tornado he tells me Greensburg was full of media vehicles, all with their satellite dishes, and Greg and his team gave twice-a-day press briefings. Greg recalls later, "We have small teams working in all these other counties that were affected by the storm. As of now, nine other counties [have been] declared eligible for assistance. Small-Business Administration, state. If you add up everybody that's helped – National Guard, State Patrol, local police, local fire, ambulances, FEMA, Kansas Emergency Management Agency, County emergency management people, volunteers, churches – it goes on and on. There's a sizable team from the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency – Kansas provided a lot of support for certain areas of Mississippi during Katrina."
When I drive in three weeks after the tornado, the media vehicles have left, and the town is practically empty of people except for rescue workers and police, who drive on patrol 24 hours a day. Anyone who does not have official access to the town is picked up and escorted out. Apparently there had been looting and people posing as cops. The only known cases of looting happened at Dillon's Store, "mostly cigarettes and beer, easy stuff," says Greg. "The first guy was an off-duty police officer from another part of the state. He disgraced himself, family, police force. Four soldiers came down from Fort Riley, pretending to be National Guardsmen, and had uniforms that were passable. Local police thought, 'something funny here' and arrested them on the spot. Disgraced the Army, themselves, but they're facing Army charges and civilian charges. So their lives are pretty much shot. They'll get dishonorable discharges. That'll follow them around the rest of their lives and they'll probably get jail time."
Greg says, "I felt sad and embarrassed for the Army. It's a disgrace to them. They were arrested right on the spot. The cops did a good job right at the beginning. The police department lost their building … and they started setting up checkpoints at either ends of town. County, sheriff, state patrol, police departments from nearby cities came over here immediately, and they set up a pretty good security perimeter to make sure the people here didn't suffer looting. Even at those first few days … even people who lived here couldn't come in. They didn't want people getting hurt. They ran a tight ship."
As Greg drives us around town, the air outside turns hot and humid and the radio announcer continues his tornado warning and orders everyone to evacuate. We pass through now unmarked streets … trucks hauling equipment for debris removal, the twisted and mangled remains of the hand-dug well, houses without roofs, church pews resting on mud with no church in sight, twisted trees, residents' belongings - now rudely turned into crap - plastered all over their lawns. Greg explains that the building materials and debris to be disposed of – i.e., the beginning of recovery work – has been steadily going for weeks. The trucks we see at the checkpoints to town are hauling debris to be burned away from town. Comparisons to Katrina come naturally to Greg, who mentions, Katrina was "like this, but a hundred times bigger." Apparently getting rid of the tornado debris by burning it was easier than in Katrina, where everything was saturated with salt water and couldn't be burned right away because it was too wet.
We eventually drive to the recovery workers' area, the only place at the edge of town where there is hot water, basic sanitation, and where meals are served three times a day. It's beginning to rain and everyone is huddling under the tents to eat dinner after a long day. We sit down at a table, rain pelting the tent and it gets dark. Greg is remembering: "What I saw Monday morning after dawn, this looks like those pictures you saw of World War II, after the bombing of Hiroshima. There was so little left … that the tornado came in, was in town for 20 minutes. It had a lot of time to cause damage. What did it sound like? It must have been terrifying. All that stuff banging around. You look at the courthouse. Cars and trucks hit that building. You can see the scars in the brick. Some of those scars couldn't be caused by trees; it had to be a heavy metal object."
He continues: "A tornado builds power as it's picking up debris, friction and heat. Strong straight-line winds … it's a rotten combination. There are places north of town that weren't touched by the tornado itself, but huge old trees were tipped over and uprooted because winds on either side of the tornado hit that … and those could have been 100 miles per hour."
We finish our dinner and I drive out of town back to Dodge City, away from the tornado warnings and the storm that's been steadily approaching. There's no tornado that night, but I learn later that at 4 a.m. all rescue workers are evacuated from their tents and sent to a safe shelter. One of the catering crew workers tells me the next day, "I've been here for three weeks – I got a little blue tent right over there; was full of water last night during our tornado evacuation, We all jumped on this big bus, it was awful, flooded, we went to the hospital, in a basement over there. Raining, basement started flooding, people were scared, two feet of water on the streets."
A significant challenge in reporting on a town that's been destroyed is talking to people. Clarification: finding people to talk to. Most of the people in Greensburg are recovery workers at this point. There are a few who came back to look at the remains of their houses and belongings:
Jerry Smith, who is the former reserve deputy sheriff of Kiowa County. Smith's uncle Charlie had built the house in 1929 and had built a storm cave in the basement with a fresh-air intake. He stocked the cave with drinking water, kolo lamps, canned goods, and went there after 22 minutes of the warning sirens, and other info – TV, computer, scanner, and weather radio. He had eight people with him. When the tornado passed, Jerry came out of the basement and discovered, like many other residents, that his roof was gone. He couldn't do much in the way of clearing out because his power tools were buried.
Scott Reinecke has lived in Greensburg for most of his life. He had built a safe shelter in his basement. He had been watching TV and checking in with the police scanner and knew there were big storms just south of Greensburg. Reinecke put on sturdy boots, gathered important family documents, got flashlights, batteries, food, water, computers and reinforced his shelter with mattresses and cushions. By the time the tornado sirens sounded throughout town, he had finished his preparations and gotten his wife, son, and parents underground into the shelter. Reinecke says: 'I've lived there all but eight years of my life. It's incredible to look at the damage and not recognize anything ... you could hear things banging around, wood breaking, a lot of chaos, sounds that's different from any other. There were a lot of things moving around, things hitting the house, flying into the house. We had someone's furnace in our living room. Large pieces of furniture. I'm having difficulty recognizing my own town."
He walks in his ruined house; the carpet is soaked wet, with dirt and shards of glass. Everything sounds like it's mushed and crunching below his feet. Walks down to the basement to his safe shelter and in the dank darkness he says:
"The pressure change with a tornado: it's incredible – the air pressure changes, and with normal, smaller … it makes your ears pop a little bit. This pressure change was so huge, it's like nothing I've ever felt. It's as though you were taken down under sea, down 100 feet just instantly. We had some young children and babies and their ear drums were ruptured.
"When we did get back up (after the tornado) I took my dad up first. My dad is 80 years old, a young 80. Our laundry/utility room gone, collapsed, we went through the kitchen. There was debris literally piled five feet high. It was as if someone had taken off the roof of the house, dumped in debris, and put the roof back on.
"It took us about an hour. I had to dig a path out from the debris. My mother is 74 years old. I didn't want her to cut her ankles on sheet metal. I cleared a path from the top of the stairs to the front door, which took about an hour. Once we got to the front door … we had a big beautiful pine tree on the corner, and my father's pickup had been parked in the driveway but now it was backed up against the front porch and that pine tree was all over it. A lot of debris. Probably another hour to two hours to dig out just to where we could get into the yard where I could help my mother and wife.
"My son was at the State Forensics Championship. There was no cell service. I tried in the yard, got enough of a signal to get through to him. I was able to tell him his parents, grandparents were okay, and that the Englekens [their neighbors] were okay. And it cut out. I've heard that story from a lot of my neighbors and townspeople. Virtually the same thing happened with them. I don't know if there's a higher hand in that.
"We went to the staging area and triage. It was incredible. I grew up here and lived here all my life. Nothing recognizable, no landmarks. Not sure how far down we were. I had difficulty recognizing my house. It was dark; only could see things in the lightening. We were on Sycamore Street. I couldn't remember, had we gone two, three, four blocks? Finally located our house in the lightening. Made our way over to Main Street. There's debris everywhere. Trees. Some streets are impassable. Power lines everywhere. I knew we were on Main Street, but not exactly, until I saw a big, long building mostly destroyed, but I knew it was the high school."
Scott Reinecke's neighbors, Rhonda Engleken and her husband Rick, had a cement and steel fallout shelter in their basement and saved over a dozen lives of friends, pets, family, grandkids, and neighbors, including Matt Deighton and his Dalmatian, Molly. Rhonda is a small-business owner. She had a beauty shop, a pizza parlor, and a baseball card shop. She was born in nearby Pratt, and has lived in Greensburg all her life. She plans to come back and rebuild, Rhonda says.
"We didn't have anything the first few days. Two or three of us taking handfuls of things. We thought it would take forever. My son plays for a paintball team in El Dorado called "F5," a coincidence. His whole bunch came by, about 30 people, a bobcat; things started moving. Pastor sent a group over from American Baptist Men. We've got five places to clean up. I was born in Pratt, lived here all my life. My dad's here, my brother's here. We're coming back; we'll just build again. Need a structural engineer to okay our basement."
Matt Deighton recalls the tornado: "I was the last one down, and Rick was guarding the troops. I went up and when the trees started up you could really feel it ... couldn't tell if the house was standing or not. The neighbor's freezer was blocking the stairway, so we cleaned it out. Made a trip out and first thing I wanted to do was shine a flashlight to see if our house was standing. The front wall was standing …. All of a sudden a lightening bolt went off and I looked to the east and there was an old farmhouse sitting there, and it was gone. And I saw Rhonda's car and I hollered back down the basement, 'Rhonda, you're gonna get a new car!' (Imitating Rhonda in a high-pitched voice): 'Oh, at a time like this, that is not funny!'"
They say it's going to be roughly 10 years before Greensburg gets on track again. The challenge its residents face now is that transition from temporary to more permanent housing, and major insurance issues. Moving forward, things will be cleared up physically, but what remains to be seen is what happens next. Will people really come back and rebuild their homes and businesses? Greensburg has strong people. They are resourceful, self-sufficient and prepared for disaster, and have a healthy sense of pride and independence. Hopefully they'll receive financial support and be able to move back and move on.
© Sarah Shatz
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