Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Sept. 14, 2007

"Struck down, but not destroyed"

Last week, a group of us from K-State drove to Greensburg, Kan., the town that was hit by an F5 tornado on May 4. We went to see if there was anything we might do to help keep attention focused on the community's needs. It is natural that the spotlight of the national media burns brightly in such a situation for a brief time, but then quickly moves on, leaving those affected to cope.

We also went to visit with the editors and publisher of the Kiowa County Signal and the Pratt Tribune, who continue to tell the stories of Greensburg and who are in it for the long haul.

I had a couple of personal reasons as well. The first was because I had organized a conference on media response in emergencies last fall and I wanted to see some of the problems first hand. The second was because I was raised in a small Kansas town and I simply couldn't imagine what it would be like to have my life so uprooted.

An F5 tornado has winds between 261-318 miles per hour and can cause strong frame houses to be lifted off their foundations, automobile-size missiles to fly through the air and significant damage to occur in steel-reinforced concrete structures.

As we approached Greensburg from the east, I wasn't sure what to expect. At first it didn't seem too bad, for trees and homes were still standing. But as we headed west, things changed quickly. Driveways and steps led to nothing. Large trees lay here and there after having been uprooted. Other trees had been sheared-off, their bark shredded and their trunks wrapped with twisted metal or shredded cloth. Nearby, a 30-mile-per-hour speed sign was jammed between two tree limbs. A semi trailer was lying on its side and a crumpled motorcycle rested in a ditch. A wheelchair stood in the middle of one lot.

Yet despite the loss of nine lives in Greensburg and two others nearby and 90 percent of the town's structures, there are signs of life everywhere. Streets have mostly been cleared, although some are marked with signs where the names are painted in red on wood boards.

School is in session, albeit in a series of trailers. The high school football team plays its "home" games in the neighboring community of Mullinville. Last weekend, the Greensburg High School Marching Band paraded through the streets of Lawrence before the University of Kansas football game.

The Greensburg post office operates from a small trailer located on the spot where the old post office had stood. An American flag flies atop a pole there as well as at several other locations in town.

About 400 people are living in row upon row of trailers in what some local residents call "FEMA-ville," named for the Federal Emergency Management Agency that has been in town helping people get on their feet. Everywhere we looked, people were working - clearing land, putting on new roofs, digging basements. The John Deere dealership is up and running, and two convenience stores provide gas and other necessities for residents. Dillon's plans to re-build a grocery store.

But probably the happiest place was what residents call the Carport Café. Three women and a man served us beef and noodles over mashed potatoes, vegetables and a dinner roll. For dessert, there was peach cobbler.

It was here that we talked with a Kiowa County commissioner, a man from a seed company, a man from the Kansas Small Business Development Center, a few local workers and a couple in their late 80s, who lived in Greensburg, but are now residing in Hutchinson. Although the older couple, who lost their home in the tornado, said they probably won't re-build, the rest seemed optimistic about the future and were pleased that we were there.

As we left, one of the women said, "Thanks for the business."

"Thanks for stopping by," said another.

And perhaps that was what impressed me the most - the positive, can-do attitudes so many expressed.

I learned those qualities will be highlighted on the "Remembering Greensburg, KS" official ornament, which will decorate the Kansas Christmas Tree in Washington, D.C. this coming holiday season. The ornaments will be sold in green gift boxes at the Kansas State Fair in Hutchinson this week and will be available at the Kansas State Historical Society in Topeka, The column, "Roots too deep to keep town mowed down," written by Kiowa County Signal and Pratt Tribune Publisher Keith Lipppoldt, will be included with the ornaments. Twenty percent of sales from the $30 ornaments will go to the Greensburg Rebuilding Fund.

While the back of the ornament has a few lines such as "Remembering Greensburg, KS and the May 4, 2007 tornado," the part that struck me were the five words that best expressed what I saw in the town: "Struck down, but not destroyed."

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