Greensburg is gone; its future, unknown

05/06/2007 1:01 AM

01/24/2008 5:15 PM

This sun-baked High Plains town no longer has a grade school, a high school, a City Hall, a hospital, a water tower, a fire station, a business district or a main street.

It has people, but all 1,400 of them live elsewhere today. The homes they kept, the rooms where they were born, where they grew old together, now lie in millions of pieces, some of them as small as matchsticks. Tatters and shards of Greensburg flew for miles across the shortgrass and sage and yucca outside town on Friday night. Their branches now hold the shreds of housing insulation, pieces of tin, pieces of twisted roofing, crumpled family photographs, torn documents, and bits and pieces of belongings.

The Kiowa County courthouse still stands. The grain elevator still stands. The water tower, as a highway patrol trooper said, "is not just down -- it is completely destroyed."

"This is so surreal," city administrator Steve Hewitt said. "I don't know what to expect tomorrow. I'm worried about two weeks from now, when the volunteers go home. I think we have a tough road ahead of us."

The day after

Greensburg has 40 National Guardsmen guarding its streets.

There is a curfew.

About 200 people were expected to stay in three shelters Saturday night in Haviland and Mullinville, according to the American Red Cross Midway-Kansas Chapter.

While townspeople looked on from afar Saturday, a second powerful storm rolled through, spawning more tornadoes and pouring inches of rain on windblown possessions.

The wind that took Greensburg away came in a wedge tornado nearly a mile and a half wide. Ninety-five percent of Greensburg took off with it.

Greensburg has at least eight dead so far. A ninth person was killed in Stafford County. As is usual when a wedge tornado rolls through wooden dwellings, some of the dead were found some distance from the torn foundations of their homes.

There was difficulty identifying the dead, notifying next of kin. It was also difficult to know how many people were unaccounted for because so many people traveled to different destinations to shelter with friends or relatives.

Thirty people were trapped in the town's collapsed hospital until rescuers dug them out.

Some townspeople survived by huddling in bathtubs, or in cold convenience store coolers, or by lying flat on the floorboards of their cars, or by crouching in musty-smelling basements. One survivor, Julie Harshey, hung on to her doorknob as the wind took her off her feet; she watched dishes fly out of her cupboards. When the hospital patched her up later, it was with a patch over one eye.

Another survivor, Beth Dubro, rode out the tornado on a familiar perch.

"I just sat down on the toilet lid and prayed," she said.

What's left

Survivors crawling out saw overturned and broken-open trucks, cracked windshields, and square mile after square mile of twisted aluminum, shredded insulation and splintered debris.

Rescuers in daylight saw foundations pulverized close to the topsoil. Residents say the meteorologists and the town sirens gave them 20 minutes to run or take shelter.

Rescuers, driving into town, lost tires to the thousands of nails and jagged edges that now litter the streets.

There are roadblocks outside of town, to keep gawkers and souvenir hunters out. They will have to keep heartbroken residents outside of town for a little while, too.

The town was evacuated so that rescuers could sort through the wreckage and make sure everyone, living and dead, is accounted for.

Wounded, but alive

Greensburg has scores of wounded. Hospitals in western and central Kansas on Saturday night were caring for at least 24 people injured by the tornado or transferred from the hospital in Greensburg.

Pratt Regional Medical Center, 30 miles east of Greensburg, treated 78 people, most with broken bones or lacerations, said hospital spokeswoman Kim Stivers.

"From about 12:30 until 6 this morning it was very, very, very, very busy and we just kept on getting more patients," Stivers said.

Nine people are still there, with two in intensive care.

Western Plains Medical Complex in Dodge City saw 13 people, one who died on the way to the hospital. It still is caring for two.

Hutchinson Hospital had four patients, all in good condition.

Via Christi-St. Francis had five, with two in critical condition.

Wesley Medical Center had four, with two in critical condition.

At 9:45 on Friday night, some residents suddenly turned into heroes. Among them was Dennis McKinney, Greensburg's state representative and the House minority leader. He lost his home to the tornado, then ran through the wreckage of his neighbors' homes to rescue a baby and several others.

"We'll rebuild," said Greensburg City Administrator Steve Hewitt, who lost his home. "It'll take time, but we'll rebuild this city. It's a scary thought, the number of homes that were destroyed."

Dealing with disaster

Greensburg's one tavern was turned into a temporary morgue.

The cafes where elderly farmers met every morning to eat pancakes and fuss at each other and renew ancient friendships are gone.

Before Friday, Greensburg touted itself for quaint things: Fading road signs along Highway 54 have for years proclaimed it to be the home of "the largest hand-dug well" in all the world. Its museum contained a large meteorite, also advertised in faded road signs.

Tod Bunting, adjutant general of the Kansas National Guard, said rescuers focused on finding people in the rubble, keeping people from drinking tap water and trying to restore power.

Traffic remained restricted. Traffic westbound on U.S. 54 was being diverted at Pratt.

Sen. Pat Roberts, in Greensburg, said state and national leaders were all coordinating relief. He said Sen. Sam Brownback and Gov. Sebelius would inspect Greensburg today.

Soldiers and airmen from the Kansas National Guard are providing security, communications and shelter missions.

The Guardsmen are from the 1st Battalion, 161st Field Artillery, 891st Engineer Battalion and 184th Air Refueling Wing.

The 134th Air Control Squadron is supplying two 120-kilowatt generators to assist in search and rescue operations and 1,500 gallons of water. Eighteen light sets from the 184th have also been sent to Greensburg to provide light for response and recovery operations. The Pratt Kansas National Guard armory has been opened as a staging area.

The tornado that hit Greensburg, which is 110 miles west of Wichita, was a wedge twister, perhaps nearly a mile wide. It was one of several twisters spawned by a supercell thunderstorm that traveled through western and central Kansas.

Utilities -- water, electric and gas -- are all shut off, and Hewitt did not know when they would be back.

Before Saturday's evacuation, Vicki Weaver sat at the county's only bar, candles flickering and a camping lantern illuminating spider-webbed windows. Then the medics came in. They said they needed to use the Bar H Tavern as a makeshift morgue.

They didn't know how many bodies might be found among the foundations. Then came the first, unloaded from an ambulance and laid alongside a pool table.

Weaver sat in disbelief in front of a line of half-empty drinks.

"Everybody (before) came here for a good time," the 54-year-old bartender said.

'We do what we can'

Residents wandered the littered streets in shock as flashing lights and spotlights illuminated mashed two-by-fours and crumbled concrete.

Ted Lesperance and Tammy Wittig, brother and sister, sat on a corner, petting their dogs, just blocks from the bar-turned-morgue.

Lesperance hustled Wittig in the cellar as the sirens blared and the tornado neared. He dived on top of Harley, the rottweiler, Wittig said.

Dusty Herring rolled up on his minivan cab. He'd already taken three loads of seven people about 15 miles east to the Haviland High School gym, where the Red Cross set up cots and collected names to reunite families.

"We do what we can," said Herring, who drives for Stagecoach Taxi out of Dodge City.

About 30 minutes earlier, people had been coming by the busload to the Haviland gym.

Bernard Taylor, a 74-year-old wearing a bloodied shirt, sat in the bleachers of the gym, holding a baby. The blood came from his roommate, who was hit in the head but not seriously hurt. "At least we lived through it," he said.

He, the woman he lives with and her two daughters scrambled to the basement once the wind started. "All of a sudden it felt like my eardrums were going to blow out of my head."

He heard his house tear apart.

The National Weather Service in Dodge City said the area from Greensburg to the northeast was hit by multiple tornadoes spawned by the same supercell thunderstorm.

School buses lined up in town to take people to shelters the Red Cross set up in Haviland.

"I can't believe the destruction I'm seeing," Sedgwick County Fire Marshal Tim Millspaugh said shortly after arriving in Greensburg to help search for people trapped in the hospital. "It's every bit as bad at the 1991 Andover tornado and the 1999 Haysville tornado."

The people of Greensburg still hadn't come to terms with the depth of the disaster.

McKinney said the state Department of Revenue will expedite issuing driver's licenses; provide extra staffing for the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services in Pratt to make sure people have food stamps, and give financial assistant for those with money in destroyed banks.

"The main thing is getting it cleaned up," he said.

"We're resilient. I think with FEMA's help, I think we can surprise some folks."

He pointed to one sign of hope for the future: He said the Greensburg grain elevator will probably be ready to take in grain from local farmers by the time wheat harvest starts in mid-June.

Contributing: Stan Finger, L. Kelly, Dan Voorhis, Deb Gruver, and Beccy Tanner of The Eagle; Associated Press

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