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Greensburg repopulates lot by lot

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, June 27, 2007, at 1:34 a.m.
  • Updated Thursday, Jan. 24, 2008, at 5:15 p.m.

— Along the littered streets of what was a thriving town of 1,400 people, concrete gray and splinter brown dominate a desolate landscape.

But look closely: People are living in Greensburg again.

At a tidy house -- surrounded by the rubble left by the May 4 tornado that destroyed 95 percent of the town and killed 10 people -- someone has mowed the lawn and hung out laundry.

Some residents are eating out of ice chests and reading by kerosene lamps.

As a generator hummed outside Bruce Raber's garage the other day, he stood by his fence and said the toughest adjustment is not having all of his neighbors around him. He's lost track of where they went.

"You kind of feel like you're on a deserted island, out here by yourself," the 49-year-old said.

Bruce, his wife and young son live in a pocket of southwest Greensburg that was partly spared. The wind broke out seven of their home's windows.

"The biggest pain we have right now is running this generator, because gas is so stinkin' high," he said.

It costs about $4.50 an hour to fuel the generator, to do laundry and to run the central air during the hottest parts of the day.

Still, he said, "I'm not complaining, because these people are doing the best they can with what's going on," referring to city officials and recovery workers.

The Dillons grocery store that sat less than a mile from his house was destroyed, so he and his wife drive 30 miles east to Pratt or 45 miles west to Dodge City. They get some free meals in town from the Salvation Army.

Just around the block, a temporary power line runs from a utility pole into the home of Sheryl and Chris Christenson.

Sheryl celebrated on May 25, when water service was restored and she got to flush her toilet. She celebrated again on June 12, when she got to plug in a refrigerator.

"I can run two electrical things at a time," she said.

The house sustained roof, door and siding damage, but a structural engineer deemed it safe.

Sometimes, it gets too quiet for her.

She appreciates the buzzing and beeping of construction equipment -- the sound of progress.

It cheers her to see a new garage going up on the street.

Without street lights, she said, "it's really dark at night."

Late last week, a curfew ran from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.

She used to ride her bike nearly every pleasant day. Last week she pedaled around for the first time since the tornado hit.

"But you ride it now, and this is what you look at," she said, gesturing toward bare lots and debris piles.

"It's hard to hear about the people who aren't coming back, because you want the town to be back like it was."

Demolition and debris-removal crews remain busy. Roughly 20 percent of the rubble still needs to be removed.

Lucky to have a home

On the east side of town, where another cluster of homes survived, Beverly Young and her husband have moved into a house that was her late mother's. The house is being remodeled to make it accessible for her wheelchair.

Her own house was destroyed. From the living room of her new home, she can see where it sat.

Her new home "doesn't feel like my home," she said. Then she added, "but we're the lucky ones" -- because they have a house to go to. "Otherwise, we'd just have to leave Greensburg."

For three weeks, she used ice chests. But the electricity to her house has been restored, and she can use a refrigerator again. No more powdered milk.

And it makes her feel good to see FEMA mobile homes being towed past her house. It means somebody else will get a home.

FEMA homes, shelters

The mobile homes are going to the south edge of town, where contractors are working to install about 300 units that will become the first major re-settlement in town.

Greg Hughes, a FEMA spokesman, said the first residents will move into the mobile homes soon. Rain has delayed work at the site.

Each mobile home has three bedrooms and two bathrooms. They come furnished.

Families can live there rent-free for up to 18 months, but will pay for utilities.

Twenty-two prefabricated underground storm shelters are being scattered around the 75-acre site.

Close quarters

Dawn Beckham, her husband, Bradd, and their two young girls are looking forward to living in one of the FEMA homes until they can find a permanent place.

For now, the four are living in a camper on a relative's property on the north side of town near U.S. 54. The tornado destroyed their three-bedroom, double-wide mobile home.

Dawn takes the family's laundry to her mother's house in Haviland, about 10 miles away.

She's trying to keep the girls, Jane, 4, and Heidi, 6, occupied with a summer reading program in Haviland.

The other day, the girls had a box of crayons and a picture puzzle on the small table tucked into the camper. The two giggled as they blew bubbles from bottles of soapy water.

They lost all of their toys in the tornado.

"They want to get a dog," Dawn said. "But right now, with close quarters, there's no way."

'Miss hearing news'

A number of displaced families are staying in 38-foot FEMA trailers in Pratt and Bucklin, about 20 miles west of Greensburg.

"It's kind of small," but it's workable, Ed Schoenberger said of a trailer in Bucklin that he and his wife, Judy, now call home.

Ed, 63, takes care of Greensburg's Fairview Cemetery, which like the town dates to 1886.

The tornado destroyed their home on Bay Street, where they had lived since 1976, so they are buying one of the survivor houses in town. They'll move in when utilities get restored. In the meantime, during some of their stays at the house, they've used an old kerosene lantern.

Without cable service, Ed said, "I can't watch TV. I missed the whole NBA playoffs. I miss reading a newspaper. I miss hearing news, period."

'They're coming back'

Steve Hewitt, the city administrator, said he realizes that a lot of people will have a "wait-and-see attitude" about whether to rebuild in Greensburg.

Bethel Keller is one person who has made up her mind. She's rebuilding on the foundation of her destroyed home.

"I'm 77, and Greensburg's all I know," she said.

"I never once thought about not building back."

The house where she and her late husband had lived sat between the high school and the elementary school, which were both destroyed.

"We always enjoyed this spot, watching the children go back and forth," she said.

The tornado dropped two steel girders onto her house. She took shelter in the basement.

She lost a maple, an oak, a blue spruce.

But she still has her roses -- about 40 of them in a tight rectangle in the backyard, blooming in blood red, peach and purple, spreading a natural perfume.

For now, she's staying with a nephew north of town. She came home to tend to the roses -- trim out the dead wood, feed them fertilizer, pull out the weeds.

"They're coming back," she said, gazing at the blossoms.

"Gives you faith," she said, talking about her town. "Makes you think it's going to come back."

Reach Tim Potter at 316-268-6684 or tpotter@wichitaeagle.com.

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