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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Salvaging what they can

BY TIM POTTER, DEB GRUVER, ROY WENZL AND TRAVIS HEYING
The Wichita Eagle

Greensburg residents pick through debris of city on first day back home

Residents returned to pick up pieces of their lives Monday, stunned and sobered by the devastation, yet relieved to be back after a 1.7-mile-wide tornado leveled their town Friday night.

There was confusion as sketchy news of additional bodies and survivors being found emerged, then conflicted, then was clarified at the end of the day.

And the names of the dead began to be known:

• Alex Giles, 84, who earned a Bronze Star at the Battle of the Bulge in World War II

• Claude Hopkins, 79

• Larry Hoskins, 51

• David Lyon, 48, who loved science, especially space

• Colleen Panzer, 77, who was like a second mom to her daughter's friends

• Ron Rediger, 57

• Beverly Volz, 52, who co-owned an oil company and had a soft spot for stray cats

There are at least four more.

President Bush plans to visit Greensburg on Wednesday, Sen. Sam Brownback said.

Meanwhile, Federal Emergency Management Administration director David Paulison arrived in Greensburg and called the destruction "some of the worst I've ever seen."

He said Bush told him to tell residents: "We are here for the long haul."

Brownback said that a priority is to get utilities operating again so that trailers provided for the homeless by FEMA can be hooked up and become temporary homes. It is also possible that some of the trailers could be set up in nearby towns.

In Wichita, residents and organizations looked for ways to help. The Salvation Army set up its kettles. Some, like Steve Dillon and Steve Sigley, loaded up vans with water or clothes and drove to Haviland.

And one of Greensburg's claims to fame -- its 1,000-pound meteorite -- was found under the rubble of the museum that has housed it for decades.

Uncertain toll

It may be a while before authorities learn how many people died in the Greensburg tornado, said Larry Ruthi, meteorologist-in-charge of the Dodge City branch of the National Weather Service.

After the tornado rolled through, it began falling apart as it reached the Kiowa County state fishing lake, measuring perhaps 10 acres at the town's northwest corner.

"There's just nothing there except debris," said Ruthi, who conducted the damage assessment of the tornado for the weather service.

The area around the lake "was swept clean" by the tornado, he said, but the lake itself is chock full of what the tornado was carrying as it began to lose strength.

Monday, searchers found a body in the lake, said Wichita police who are helping with rescue and recovery.

Another body was reported buried in rubble in the center of town -- but it later turned out to be merely a wig, said Sharon Watson, spokeswoman for the Kansas Emergency Management Agency.

Nine people are known to have been killed by the Friday tornado in Kiowa County. One person died in Pratt County. Another died in a Saturday tornado in Ottawa County.

No survivors have been found since Saturday.

Monday, Greensburg Mayor Lonnie McCollum told the Associated Press that two elderly women had been rescued Sunday night from the basement of the local Mennonite church. But Monday night, an AP reporter tracked down those two women, both in their 80s, and learned they had been rescued from the church Saturday morning.

Officials thought they had found a different survivor Sunday night, but learned that the man was a county commissioner who had returned to his home.

Search and rescue operations will continue today, Greensburg City Administrator Steve Hewitt said. "There is hope out there. People should contact the Red Cross if someone is still missing. We've gone through properties three different times and will continue that."

Dangerous cleanup

Residents allowed in by police Monday loaded pickups already heaped with belongings. Some stopped to hug, or stare, or take pictures of what was left of their homes.

Others stood on upper floors, looking at vacant spaces where walls and roofs once kept them warm. They bent down to pick up small belongings. Many wore gloves, a smart move: Splinters, broken glass and nails stuck out everywhere.

It was slippery underfoot from the rain, making the barbs and jagged edges all the more dangerous.

At what used to be Adams Electric & Plumbing, manager Don Blasi walked into the rubble, stood for a moment and rubbed tears from his eyes.

"Six years to build the business and it blew away in minutes."

His brother Bob Blasi, who owns the business, said he plans to rebuild.

Even as residents were retrieving belongings, some had to be evacuated.

Rescuers were working to shore up a slight leak on a rail car carrying 14,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia. The tank had been damaged in the tornado, said David Sternbenz, an official with the Topeka Fire Department.

While they were working on it, they broke off a two-inch valve, causing a serious leak.

All traffic coming into Greensburg was stopped. People in the immediate area were evacuated.

A helicopter was sent to bring in a new valve.

Residents will be allowed back into Greensburg to retrieve belongings today, Hewitt said.

Tough decisions

Jay and Amy Fleener left their 10-year-old son, Jaden, in Haviland on their first trip back home Monday.

It was hard enough for grownups to choose what to take and what to leave behind.

They filled the back of a pickup with clothing and personal items, taking what they need for the next few weeks.

They had a stucco home in Greensburg, where Jay's family set up two businesses in 1907.

They had lived in Greensburg "forever," Amy said.

The Fleeners survived Friday's tornado by hiding under a pool table in the basement of their home.

Their home is standing but destroyed. The funeral home they operate also took a hit.

Amy said she understands why they couldn't get into their home until today.

"We weren't terribly frustrated, just waiting," she said.

The family -- Jay, Amy, Jaden and 15-year-old Taylor -- have been "farmed out" with friends.

They're going to make their home in Haviland, where they've found a rental house.

It'll do for now, she says.

Contributing: Stan Finger, Brent D. Wistrom, Dion Lefler and Mike Hutmacher of The Eagle; Associated Press.

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