GREENSBURG — Bush offers solace to storm-weary residents
President Bush spent about three hours in Greensburg on Wednesday, surveying destruction and bringing the "prayers and concerns of the people of this country" to the survivors of one of the most destructive tornadoes in recent memory.
He arrived by helicopter at about 10:15 a.m., first flying over Greensburg to take in the full scope of the tornado's fury. A motorcade of at least 20 vehicles drove through town, carrying local officials, the governor, congressmen, a senator, reporters and Secret Service agents.
As the vehicles passed, some people lining the road held up signs in the rain; others picked through debris, not bothering to look up.
Bush wore sturdy work boots -- appropriate for negotiating the debris that litters the muddy ground.
At the John Deere dealership, he viewed the smashed combines and busted-up tractors, doling out hugs to survivors and words of thanks to volunteers.
As townsfolk posed with Bush in small groups, Kansas' U.S. senators Sam Brownback, a Republican presidential candidate, or Pat Roberts would snap the shutter, hand cameras back and move on to the next group.
Secret Service agents perched in black rain slickers atop a wrecked combine and monitored the scene with binoculars, one talking into his collar. Around them were blasted trees, broken-off light poles, houses with roofs ripped open and the sound of heavy equipment.
Hamish Ogle, a 17-year-old volunteer from nearby Haviland, walked up to Bush and asked, "Can I shake your hand?"
When the president learned Ogle was an exchange student from New Zealand, he smiled and asked: "Are you enjoying it here?"
After the encounter, Ogle marveled to strangers: "I was talking to him! It's crazy!"
Bush took a break after about two hours to briefly address reporters:
"I am struck by the strength of the character of the people who live here in the Plains," he said. "People who... refuse to have their spirit affected by this storm; as a matter of fact, who are willing to do what it takes to rebuild in a better way. America is blessed to have such people."
"Our role as government officials is to work with the states and local folks to get whatever help is appropriate here, whatever help is in the law (will) be here as quickly as possible," he explained. "My mission... today, though, is to lift people's spirits as best as I possibly can and to hopefully touch somebody's soul by representing our country, and to let people know that while there was a dark day in the past, there's brighter days ahead."
He then went back to walking the streets and working the crowd:
"How're you doin'?"
"Some things are worse than a tornado -- like all the hot air" that comes out of Washington, D.C. People laughed.
He briefly pointed a chainsaw in the direction of the reporters who accompanied him, winking and flashing his famous wry smile.
Bush knew the residents of Greensburg have been using humor to cope with their loss. On his tour, he saw a "For Sale" sign on a car crushed beyond recognition, and this, in front of a home that had been reduced to matchsticks:
PARDON OUR MESS
The president stopped on the west end of town to admire the 1945 John Deere Model G tractor Felicia and Justin Minyard had loaded onto a flatbed trailer.
Bush spent a few minutes chatting with the couple, married three years, who moved into their brick house near Greensburg's First Methodist Church about a month ago.
As they talked quietly, Bush patted a tractor tire affectionately.
The Minyards rode out the storm in their basement. Once upstairs, Felicia said, she began trying to find buckets to catch all the ceiling leaks. Then Justin looked outside and called to her.
"I'm trying to save my carpet," she said, "and then I realized that people all round me don't have their home anymore."
Justin said he has no intention of leaving Greensburg: "We plan on staying here to watch it get rebuilt."
About 1:30 p.m., the president got back into a Marine helicopter to fly to Wichita, where Air Force One was waiting for him at McConnell Air Force Base.
The people of Greensburg went back to work.