Five years later, Greensburg survivor reflects on what tornado took from him

05/03/2012 5:00 AM

08/05/2014 7:10 PM

Until 9:45 that night, Norman Volz had a wife, a father-in-law and an employee who was one of his best friends.

In 15 minutes, he lost all of them in the fury of the EF-5 tornado that swept away most of Greensburg.

Five years later, Volz still is adjusting to his losses. He was related to, or friends with, a quarter of the 12 people who died in the storm on May 4, 2007. And one of them was Beverly, his wife of nearly 34 years.

“There are days when things don’t bother me. There are days when, if I sit down and talk about it, I lose it,” he said. “It’ll be that way for a long time.”

Volz’s recovery has been about like that of the town, not as fast as he’d like. But while the town has attracted national attention for rebuilding itself as a “green” Greensburg, Volz’s recovery has been quiet, a daily grind of work at the office where his wife also used to work, and a nine-mile drive back to Mullinville and the house he bought a couple of months after the storm, where he lives alone.

Bev, he said, was half the brains of Volz Oil, his fuel marketing company on the eastern edge of Greensburg. She kept the books, did all the paperwork, and turned herself into a computer whiz to help save the company time and money. He did the physical stuff — made the fuel runs and kept the inventory stocked.

Volz, 59, grew up in Greensburg, and he said he feels better seeing the town recover. He’s even bought into the whole “green” thing to some extent. He put new energy-efficient lighting in his building, including more than 50 skylights in the new roof.

But he hasn’t yet decided whether he ever wants to live in Greensburg again.

“I just don’t quite have things together to get things done,” he said.

He thought about rebuilding on the lot south of town on the west side of Main Street, where their house had stood until that night. But that’s where Bev had worked in her garden, and where she had watched the goldfish and koi in the fish pond he’d dug for her. At night, they liked to sit on the deck and listen to the gurgling of a waterfall he had installed in the pond.

So he decided against it.

“Too many memories, and I was just going to compare everything,” he said.

He owns the lot where his parents lived until they died in 2009. Volz grew up in the house on that site. The house was totaled by the tornado, although his parents weren’t hurt. He may rebuild there, or he may not.

“There’s some days I really just don’t want to even think about building a house,” he said.

Volz is one of many townspeople who haven’t returned to live there. Greensburg had a population of 1,400 residents before May 4, 2007. The town had slightly more than half that number, 777, in the 2010 U.S. Census.

It had 355 occupied housing units, according to the 2010 Census, compared with 730 in the 2000 Census.

After the storm, residents and city officials developed a 20-year master plan to make the town sustainable. Some bought into the plan. Many did not and didn’t return.

“People questioned that. Even internally we question it at times,” said Bob Dixson, who has been mayor since 2008 and was re-elected last month. “The people who have chosen to build back up and start up businesses are really committed. That keeps the spirit going strong.”

A recent National Renewable Energy Laboratory report found that 13 buildings in Greensburg using “green” technologies save a combined $200,000 in energy costs per year.

Among buildings using such technologies in wall and roof construction, lighting, and heating and cooling systems are the 5.4.7. Arts Center, City Hall, the SunChips Business Incubator, three banks, a Best Western motel, the John Deere dealership, the Kiowa County Courthouse, the new county hospital and a new K-12 school.

Savings ranged from 29 percent at the Centera Bank to 75 percent at the Best Western, according to the study.

“We are very pleased with the energy savings,” Dixson said. “Sometimes we’d like to see more, but this gives us a good baseline to look at the buildings and how they’re performing and how we can continue to monitor that performance.”

Gone is some of Greensburg’s natural green — the giant cottonwood, maple and elm trees that shaded neighborhoods and shielded them from the winds on the high plains. For five years, Greensburg residents have lived in an open terrain dotted by stripped and stunted trees with fractured limbs. But volunteers recently planted Prairie Fire and Spring Snow crabapple trees around the Big Well Museum, which will open May 26. The trees were awarded the town as a prize for winning the Siemens Sustainable Community Award in 2011.

Life without Bev

Volz knows the trees will take time to grow and serve as shade and windbreaks again.

“Everything takes a while,” he said.

Bev was the landscaper at their house, he said. She put in the rose and flower garden.

He hasn’t tried to do any landscaping at his house in Mullinville.

“It’s really not that enjoyable without her,” he said.

His thumb wasn’t as green as hers, but he did come up with a drip-line watering system for the garden, which pleased her.

That’s the way they were with each other, perfect complements, something they discovered after meeting in community college in Liberal.

“I couldn’t have found anybody better,” Volz said.

They had no children, but plenty of hobbies. Volz liked motorcycles; Bev didn’t. But she rode with him on his Harley, and a year before the storm even urged him to buy a new one.

Bev liked shopping; Volz didn’t. But he’d drive through rush-hour traffic in Kansas City to a mall if it made her happy.

They didn’t always like each other’s hobbies, but they always liked to make each other happy.

They used to spend weekends in Kansas City or Wichita. Volz doesn’t travel as often anymore, and when he does, it’s not as much fun.

They used to enjoy concerts. Volz hasn’t considered attending one since she died.

‘I remember apologizing’

Their decision about what to do the night of the tornado was mutual. The house had no basement, so they thought about leaving. But Bev’s father, Max McComb, was staying with them while he recovered from shoulder surgery and wasn’t comfortable about leaving. The house was solid and well built. So they decided to stick it out at home. Besides, weather reports were predicting the storm would miss the town.

When it changed course, and the sirens went off, Volz got everybody into a hallway on the ground floor. That’s what they tell you, he said. Try to put as many walls as you can between you and the storm.

They’d have been fine there, he said, if it hadn’t been for a 12- to 15-foot piece of highway guardrail that flew like a missile down through the top story of the house and struck Bev and her father.

Volz heard Bev cry out and he knew she was seriously injured. But they were able to talk to each other in the rubble.

“We just told each other how much we loved each other,” he said. “I remember apologizing. I remember wishing we had done something different rather than stay there.”

Volz , who suffered a broken kneecap, stumbled from the house to get help. Neighbors put Bev, 52, in a pickup truck, and an ambulance took her to Dodge City, but she didn’t make it.

Bev’s 77-year-old father was in a coma for two months. He managed to come out of it before he died.

“I think he just kind of gave up when he found out Bev had died,” Volz said.

To this day, Volz doesn’t know where that guardrail came from. It could have come from beside a road south of town, he said, or from the county highway department a few blocks from the house.

A good day turned bad

His close friend Larry Hoskins, 51, an employee for 18 years, died when his house exploded. The walls weren’t bolted to the foundation, Volz said, and the house had no basement.

“He had no chance,” Volz said. “But I’m sure he didn’t know that.”

Another friend, who did have a basement, sought shelter in it, but died when his pickup flew out of his garage and landed on top of him, Volz said.

Many people tried to help out around town that night. Volz was one of them. As he tried to get to the hospital to be with Bev, he ran into a friend near some ambulances and offered to let rescue workers get whatever they needed from his garage, if it was still intact. They wiped out his supply of work gloves, while the Salvation Army used his coffee pot and bottled water, and somebody else hooked up a generator so his pumps could supply fuel for emergency vehicles.

In the next days and weeks, Volz continued to supply fuel, which was donated by three oil companies, for the cleanup effort.

He gave away about $30,000 of it to residents who’d been hit by the tornado because he knew people had lost wallets, purses, IDs, credit cards and checks.

“I needed to know that I was making a difference,” Volz said. “And it kept me incredibly busy, which kept me from sitting around thinking too much.”

As time passed, his work began to suffer. He wasn’t sharp. He didn’t make quick decisions and sometimes made wrong decisions. Sometimes he tried too hard to take care of one customer while another waited too long for service, he said.

Most of his customers were understanding. They knew he was going to work every day in an office that had no Beverly.

Friends tried to get Volz away from the office for suppers and trips.

“They knew I needed to stay busy, but they also tried to monitor me so I didn’t try to do too much,” he said.

For Volz, May 4, 2007, had started out as one of the best days ever. Bev’s breast cancer had been caught early, and surgery in Wichita had been successful, but doctors had recommended five follow-up radiation treatments just to be sure. Bev had had the last treatment that morning, and she and Volz were in a mood to celebrate.

But they had kept the cancer secret from her father, so that night, while the three of them ate supper, all he and Bev could do was look at each other and smile.

For five years, Volz has lived with this question:

“How could something that bad happen on a day that good?” he said.

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