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President's visit welcome, but not town's top priority

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, May 8, 2007, at 2:07 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, Jan. 24, 2008, at 5:15 p.m.

— A visit by President Bush on Wednesday would normally be the biggest event in the town's history.

But digging out from under a tornado's rubble, the people of Greensburg are just too busy to pay the visit much heed.

"He doesn't want us to stop," Steve Hewitt, city administrator, said of the president, "and we don't want us to stop."

People are too busy mapping out how to eat, where to sleep next, where to get fresh laundry and how to literally pick up the pieces of their lives, their futures and their homes.

For them, they said time has blurred, and they grow weary with fatigue and the sorrow that comes with the reading of the newly confirmed dead: three more at a news conference this morning.

Rescuers were still picking over wreckage to look for survivors -- or more bodies.

Today the fire team from Lincoln, Neb., took charge of coordination; teams from several cities have been trading off duties. Among states that have sent rescue teams are California and Florida.

The teams were being told to watch out for hazardous chemicals, such as the ones that can seep out of destroyed electrical transformers and downed power lines. They were told to be vigilant about washing their hands, but the biggest hazards come from the germs stirred up by disaster.

Searches will continue today and Wednesday. Greensburg Mayor Lonnie McCollum said the teams weren't ready to give up looking, just yet.

"In my gut I think we've found everybody," McCollum said. "But we're not going to stop looking until we are sure."

McCollum is one of the homeless. He said most of the townspeople have no place to go. A lot of people are still living in shelters. He's been living in the front seat of a pickup truck.

His wife hurt her knee during the storm and was treated and released from a hospital.

McCollum, 62, a former Kansas Highway Patrol trooper, said he lost nearly everything in the tornado: a three-story home and six vehicles. He pointed to his toughest personal property loss -- a 1932 Ford hotrod.

But he said Greensburg is home to carpenters, plumbers and other people who know how to make things with their hands.

"Once they decide that something needs fixing, they will fix it," he said.

This town is resilient, the mayor said, and they want to save their community.

"It's going to be rebuilt," he said. "We're going to have a new town. This town owes it to our historical roots to rebuild, and we're going to rebuild it new. Everybody wants to live in a new town."

Today the sun poked out on a muggy morning for the first time since it set Friday.

On the western edge of town, the sun beat down on the mangled remains of Lighthouse Worship Center.

Vernon Davis, a member of the church for 50 years, leaned on a piano that had been salvaged from the demolished four-year-old building. Davis expects the church to soon have a temporary place of worship.

"The preacher wants to get a service here -- out on the lawn -- to cry on each other's shoulders," Davis said.

Recovery teams worked with pipes and meters to restore utilities so that Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers can be rolled into place to put residents back in town. The first of the trailers arrived today.

Army soldiers walked the streets from a tent city on the south side of town. National Guard troops were cleaning up debris at Delmer Day Elementary School.

The Salvation Army now has a dining area distributing food on what was once Main Street.

An 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. curfew is still in place.

The U.S. Forest Service is setting up base camp for first responders.

Just before noon today, several men working outside the demolished post office found an American flag in what had been the back room.

The men -- Bob Boyer, Paul Mazzanote and Tom Pappas from the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and Dave Kenny and LaWayne Smith from the Kansas Air National Guard -- scrambled over the broken debris and raised that flag on the bent flag pole that used to stand outside the post office. At first, the flag drooped into the rubble, because the pole was bent at nearly a 45-degree angle downward.

They then removed some of the rubble to make room for the flag to flutter in the breeze without dragging its farther end into the pile. Many in the crowd of onlookers appeared deeply moved.

Meanwhile, trim, well-dressed men appeared in town:

They were from the Secret Service, preparing for Bush's tour.

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