TOPEKA — For Jerrold Hoffman, seeing trees planted in the yards of tornado-flattened Greensburg will be a dream finally coming true.
Hoffman knows what it's like to survive a killer tornado. The Udall resident recalls when a tornado leveled his town southeast of Wichita 52 years ago, killing 77 people and ripping away most of the trees.
Next Saturday, Hoffman and other volunteers expect to be in Greensburg to oversee tree planting in the town of 1,400. Greensburg is recovering from a May 4 twister that all but wiped it off the map, leaving 11 people dead and some 2,000 trees destroyed.
Hoffman said around 40 homeowners already have signed up for a tree in their yards, and he's planning return trips next year to plant more.
"I thought it was going to be an overnight job. But it's going to be an ongoing job. I think by next fall we should be pretty close to finishing," Hoffman said.
When Hoffman came up with the idea, the Udall Community Historical Society agreed in June to sponsor the fundraising and put him in charge. He said he's about $2,000 short of his goal of $10,000 to buy trees but decided to move ahead.
"We haven't reached the minimum goal, but we've got enough to get started," he said.
He said donations have come from around the nation, often from people with ties to either Greensburg or Udall.
One contributor, whom Hoffman didn't want to identify, included a letter noting that the writer's mother lost her home in the May 25, 1955, Udall tornado.
"When she spoke of the tornado, she always said she was sad because she lost so many of her friends and her trees," the letter said. "When anyone would ask her what they could do to help after the storm she always said, 'Plant a tree.' "
Helping Hoffman plant trees will be the Westar Energy Green Team, comprising volunteers who are employees and retirees of Westar Energy Inc., the state's largest electric utility. Started in 1989, the team does environmental projects around the state.
"Udall stepped forward because they wanted to help Greensburg. All we're doing is helping to make it happen. They had a great idea and we have a lot of tree planting experience and lots of volunteers," said Brad Loveless, Green Team coordinator.
Loveless said the trees are from 10 feet to 12 feet tall and include oaks, elms and cottonwoods, all of which can thrive in areas with low rainfall, high winds and sandy clay soil, like Greensburg.
"These are beautiful trees, all leafed out. Anybody would be happy to have them in their yard," Loveless said.
Plans call for one tree for each homeowner wanting one, but Hoffman said there will be some extra trees for homeowners wanting more. He said the trees are going to homeowners who are living in their homes and can care for the trees.
"They've got to be there with utilities, because there's no sense in planting them if there is no water and they can't take care of them," Hoffman said.
He has been working with Kiowa County Extension agent Carmen Stauth of Greensburg, who keeps a growing list.
"I thought I would have to go house to house asking them if they want a tree," Hoffman said. "They will tell us where they want the tree, and we will teach them how to care for it."
Loveless said he and other volunteers will show how to plant and care for the young trees. He said the most common mistake is digging the hole too deep.
He said a tree should be planted so the section where the trunk joins the roots is about an inch above ground. The tree needs to be staked so it can bend with the wind but keep its roots in place. Also, the ground around it needs mulching.
New trees take decades to become full-blown shade trees, but Greensburg can see a little of its future in Udall, which now has scores in its yards. Stauth said receiving trees from a town that went through a similar disaster adds meaning.
"Working with communities that have gone through similar experiences gives a community a sense of hope that we can come back and be a bigger, stronger community," she said.