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Weary residents keep focus on work

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, May 9, 2007, at 1:35 a.m.
  • Updated Thursday, Jan. 24, 2008, at 5:15 p.m.

— Normally, a visit by President Bush would be the biggest event in this town's history.

But today, as they dig out from under a tornado's rubble, the people of Greensburg are ust too busy to pay Bush much heed.

"He doesn't want us to stop," City Administrator Steve Hewitt 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 pick up the pieces of their lives, their futures and their homes.

"We're working as usual," Topeka Deputy Fire Chief Dave Sterbenz said.

For these people, time has blurred. They've grown weary with fatigue and the sorrow that comes with the reading of the newly confirmed dead: three more at a news conference Tuesday morning.

Some 400 Kansas National Guard troops were helping clear away debris from the city, including at Delmer Day Elementary School.

But cleanup crews won't touch the destroyed homes or yards, Hewett said, until the town's residents are done sifting through the wreckage, trying to salvage their personal histories.

Mayor Lonnie 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.

McCollum, 62, a former Kansas Highway Patrol superintendent, 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 people 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."

Utilities restored

Crews are working to make the town inhabitable again.

Recovery teams dug to turn off gas mains and get water flowing again, restoring utilities so Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers can be rolled into place and help get residents back into town. The first of the FEMA trailers arrived Tuesday morning.

Army soldiers walked the streets from a tent city on the south side of town.

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

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

For now, a curfew remains in place. On Monday, police arrested six people for disobeying orders.

Church piano salvaged

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

On the western edge of town, sunlight 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.

While residents worked to return to some sense of normality, trim, well-dressed men appeared in town:

They were from the Secret Service, preparing for the president's arrival.

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