Special Reports

May 5, 2007

From our reporters' notes: a Greensburg blog

3 p.m. Sunday In a strange juxtaposition, a full set of white and blue china -- including tea service -- stands on display in a storefront on Haviland's main street, perfect, while Greensburg residents' dishes are strewn across their town.

3 p.m. Sunday

In a strange juxtaposition, a full set of white and blue china -- including tea service -- stands on display in a storefront on Haviland's main street, perfect, while Greensburg residents' dishes are strewn across their town.

People stop to hug in front of the hardware store, relieved to see one another.

"I'm so glad you're OK" is a familiar refrain as people visit the Salvation Army's makeshift disaster office at Haviland's small, brick city hall.

Displaced residents and weary travelers stop in the hardware store-turned feed station for loaves of bread, two-liters of Pepsi, coffee and chips.

The cash register rings constantly on a day that the hardware store is usually closed.

--Deb Gruver

2:45 p.m. Sunday

In a grove of trees just past the Pratt County line on U.S. 54, a blue banner assures drivers, "Greensburg has a great big welcome for you!"

The town once did, but Sunday afternoon Ed Frost wondered what would become of his home. Sitting on a bench outside the Red Cross' temporary command post at Haviland High School, Frost, a mental health counselor in his 50s, considered his new role as a tornado survivor. He and his family wouldn't be allowed back to their house until search-and-rescue crews accounted for 31 Greensburg residents who were still missing, Frost said.

"When it's your hometown, to have a bunch of strangers come in and say, 'You need to leave; we're in charge now'... it's not a comfortable situation," he said. "I don't have any answers for it," he added. "It's just being in the dark that's hard."

Frost and his wife, Marquita, weathered the storm by wedging themselves between the furnace and the refrigerator in their basement. When neighbors helped free the couple from the rubble of their house at 313 S. Bay St., they saw clouds of dust and what remained of their living room, minus the north wall. "I had a big bass violin that I keep near the door," Frost said. "It was standing up like nothing had happened."

In a soft, soothing baritone, Frost said he hopes his mentally ill clients from the Iroquois Center for Human Development will prove as resilient. Some of them would be homeless if it weren't for the center, he said. When he sees a familiar face in the crowd at the shelter, he says a silent prayer of thanks.

"We lost a couple," he said, turning away to wipe his tears.

A few minutes later, he composes himself: "He giveth and he taketh away. We're on that side of it now, but we'll come out. And it's going to be better than it was before, because we'll be closer."

--Jillian Cohan

2:40 p.m. Sunday

If you have faith, you pray. You believe. But what if you aren't a person of faith? We asked someone for advice.

The Rev. Gene McIntosh, pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Greensburg, suggests just being together. Hugging. Holding. Hanging on.

"I believe God works through people," he said shortly after returning to his church to survey the damage.

The sanctuary roof was caved in. A few rooms in the southeast part of the church were intact. A picture of Jesus remained on a wall, though a cross atop the church had toppled.

People need to come together now -- no matter what their beliefs, McIntosh said.

--Deb Gruver

1:40 p.m. Sunday

Greensburg school officials have begun updating the school district's Web site.

Anyone seeking updates about the status of school activities is urged to visit www.usd422.org. Information will be posted as it becomes available, superintendent Darin Headrick said.

--Deb Gruver

1:30 p.m. Sunday

The director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, R. David Paulison, is expected to visit Greensburg tomorrow, officials announced this afternoon.

Meanwhile, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius is expected to arrive at the victim shelters in Haviland by 3 p.m. today. She'll travel on to Greensburg after that.

--Jerry Siebenmark

1:10 p.m. Sunday

People have trickled into Haviland hardware today, grabbing snacks. Newspapers with front-page photographs of the tornado are strewn on a round white table.

The owner, Vic Hannan, usually doesn't open on a Sunday, "but people just needed a place to go." To give them something to eat, he has his microwave in operation, heating up burritos and cheeseburgers.

He asks each customer where they are from, then cracks a joke about how he was running a non-profit store.

On the walls of his store are fliers that now seem ironic: one flier advertises the Haviland Spring Cleanup, originally scheduled for April 27-May 6; and a flier advertising a Give Blood drive for May 18.

--Deb Gruver

12:55 p.m. Sunday

The National Weather Service has determined that the Greensburg tornado was an EF-5.

"EF" stands for "Enhanced Fujita," the scale meteorologists now use to measure the destructive power of a tornado. An "EF-5" tornado is in the most destructive category.

It means the winds in the Greensburg tornado are now estimated to have been at least 200 mph.

Dan McCarthy, a meteorologist with National Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said the Greensburg tornado was as strong as or stronger than the massive tornado that struck central Oklahoma in 1999.

--Deb Gruver

12:30 p.m. Sunday

There will be no formal classes the rest of the school year in Greensburg. There were three weeks left. High school graduation was supposed to be next Saturday.

"We're going to have graduation," school superintendent Darin Headrick said, "but when and where we don't know."

In August, though, there will be school, he said. Probably in portable buildings and in neighboring towns.

The school district plans to rebuild.

"It will be a huge challenge, but also an opportunity," Headrick said. The old schools -- a grade school and a high school, destroyed in the storm -- were built in the early 1900s, and retrofitting for electricity and air-conditioning has been a challenge.

Now, new schools can be built from scratch.

--Deb Gruver

9:30 a.m. Sunday

Bulldozers have begun to level unstable structures around Greensburg. Crews are spray-painting street names on the asphalt so people know where they are.

It's hard to describe what it's like here, but in a weird way it reminds me of El Dorado Lake. Flat and featureless -- except for the bare and twisted treetops that rise above everything.

--Deb Gruver

9:15 a.m. Sunday

The clouds have returned over Greensburg, and it has begun to rain.

Crews have begun spray-painting a fluorescent orange "V" on vacant houses.

Officially, the death toll remains at nine.

--Deb Gruver

8:30 a.m. Sunday

Politicians spoke on national morning news shows from Greensburg on this morning, reassuring help for those whose lives were torn apart by a tornado that hit town Friday night.

Hotels in the area were packed Saturday night. Front-desk clerks at Pratt hotels told the same line to hundreds of people looking for a place to stay: "Without a reservation, no vacancy."

Water stood in fields this morning, the skies clearing.

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius will be in Greensburg today.

The Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services' office in Pratt will be taking applications Monday for people who need emergency food stamps.

--Deb Gruver

8:02 p.m. Saturday

Veterinary Emergency & Specialty Hospital, on South Washington, volunteered Saturday to take up to eight pets critically injured in the Greensburg tornado.

As of Saturday evening, none had arrived.

--Dan Voorhis

7:35 p.m. Saturday

About 200 people are expected to stay in shelters in the Greensburg area tonight, half the number that did Saturday morning, as people find other places to stay, according to the American Red Cross Midway-Kansas Chapter.

--Dan Voorhis

7:23 p.m. Saturday

A tornado touched down briefly twice near Haviland about 7:15 p.m., driving reporters' vehicles on U.S. 54 toward the ditch.

Haviland, 12 miles east of Greensburg, is where hundreds of displaced residents have taken shelter since Friday night.

--L. Kelly

7:05 p.m. Saturday

As of Saturday evening, hospitals in western and central Kansas were caring for at least 24 people injured by the tornado or transferred from the hospital in Greensburg.

Pratt Medical Center, 30 miles east of Greensburg, was hit the hardest. The emergency room saw 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. "But we managed."

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

Western Plains Medical Center 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 has five, with two in critical condition.

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

--Dan Voorhis

6:30 p.m. Saturday

The streets of Greensburg may look clear in photographs, but they are strewn with little bits of flotsam of a town ripped to shreds: nails, glass and metal.

The guys at Greensburg Tires "are going to be working around the clock," said manager Jimmy Brozek.

They are getting help tonight from countless folks like Luis Moreno, who left his shop in Dodge City to help repair tires and keep backhoes, semitrucks and patrol cars rolling.

--Deb Gruver

6 p.m. Saturday

The official death toll in the Greensburg tornado remains at nine.

Sharon Watson, director of public affairs for the Kansas Adjutant General's office, said dozens of people have been injured.

"We have reports from local hospitals indicating there are about 16 critically injured and another 50 that were being treated at area hospitals," Watson said. "But the numbers continue to charge."

Watson said 40 National Guardsmen from Wichita and Great Bend are in Greensburg today providing security. They will help enforce an 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. curfew that will see a temporary suspension of rescue operations.

Sedgwick County search and rescue crews are in the area, and they helped evacuate about 30 people from Greensburg Hospital, which was heavily damaged by the tornado.

The National Guard also was supplying the city with water The town's water tower was destroyed, Watson said, and city officials were afraid the water supply was compromised.

--Hurst Laviana

5:40 p.m. Saturday

Ellen Querner and a small group of pet lovers called PALS are in Greensburg rescuing dogs found wandering through the devastation searching for their owners and their homes.

By late afternoon, they had about 30 dogs in a temporary shelter in a Greensburg maintenance building.

Residents searching for a pet should call the Pratt Humane Society at 620-672-6777 with a name, contact number and a description of the pet.

"We want the owners to come get them as quickly as possible," she said.

As for cats, they are still traumatized and still in hiding, Querner said.

"We won't see the cats for a while," she said. "They have a tendency to hide and won't come out again until night."

She said they might start setting traps for the cats tonight.

--Dan Voorhis

5:08 p.m. Saturday

Most of the 26 residents of the Carriage House Assisted Living Center in Greensburg are now safe in sister facilities in the Wichita area after riding out the tornado.

There was only one injury, said owner Larry Wilkerson, when a residents fell and broke his wrist. He was taken to the hospital this morning.

The residents and staff rode out the storm in the basement and the hallways. The building sustained only minor damage, mostly broken glass -- one of the few in town left standing.

"It was a miracle, I mean 'Do you believe in miracles?'" said Annie Lovette, operator of Lakepoint Nursing and Rehabilitation Center at 13th and West streets in Wichita.

Nine residents were taken to Lakepoint at Crestview. Seven went to the Carriage House in Augusta and two went to the Lakepoint Nursing Center in El Dorado. These are all sisters facilities to the Greensburg facility.

There rest went with family, Wilkerson said.

--Dan Voorhis

5 p.m. Saturday

Julie Harshey lived in the Comodaro Apartments in Greensburg.

She wasn't able to make it to the basement shelter in time.

She remembers hanging onto the doorknob and feeling her feet being lifted off the floor. She heard all of her dishes flying out of the cupboards, windows breaking, doors popping open.

Harshey found all of her neighbors but one and she can't find her cat, Bootsie.

She was taken to the emergency room in Pratt for a head wound; she was hit by a flying timber.

She was also wearing a patch over her eye because she was hit by flying glass. She was wrapped in a blanket and clothed only in a hospital gown.

--Phyllis Jacobs Griekspoor

4:30 p.m. Saturday

Sen. Pat Roberts and Reps. Todd Tiahrt and Jerry Moran, visited three shelters set up in Haviland to reassure the victims that federal help was on the way.

"This will be no Katrina," Roberts told one of the groups.

Sen. Sam Brownback, who is scheduled to arrive in the area on Sunday, joined Roberts, Tiahrt and Moran today in sending an official request for national disaster assistance to President Bush.

--Phyllis Jacobs Griekspoor

4:30 p.m. Saturday

Agents from State Farm, American Family and Farmers Group insurance agencies were in the area on Saturday and began distributing checks.

"We're just trying to meet people's immediate needs and restore some sense of normalcy," said Bob Wiederstein, a Farmers Group adjuster from Valley Center.

National damage assessment teams were scheduled to start arriving tonight and could begin damage assessment as early as Sunday if officials say it's safe enough to enter the area.

--Phyllis Jacobs Griekspoor

3:30 p.m. Saturday

Virginia Hammond of Greensburg stood in the street Saturday afternoon and looked at a gaping hole that once held a large curtained bedroom window.

"I just washed those curtains the day before yesterday," she said.

During the storm, Hammond said, she and her husband huddled on their basement floor with their grandson.

"You could feel the dust and dirt," she said. "The noise was just atrocious."

Although they lost most of their possessions, she said, "right now that doesn't mean anything."

"My family's safe. As long as you've got your family, that's everything."

--Tim Potter

1 p.m. Saturday

Marjorie McKinney, who lives with her husband on a farm near Lewis, works at the Iroquois Transitional Living Center in Greensburg.

Iroquois is a home for severely and persistently mentally ill people who are stable on medication and attempting to gain skills to return to mainstream life.

Residents took shelter in the basement, but the house was badly damaged, and they weren't able to locate their medication before they left.

McKinney and one other supervisor are with their clients now at the high school shelter in Haviland, where they have been since about 1 a.m.

Supervisors are trying to bring in necessary medications for people.

McKinney said some people have been picked up by family members and they are attempting to make arrangements for others.

--Phyllis Jacobs Griekspoor

7 p.m. Saturday

In Stafford County, longtime Macskville banker Don Peterson said he had counted six homes that were destroyed by the tornado, and that a half-mile tree line south of town was uprooted. "It's gone, hauled off with the storm," he said.

He counted 25 dead Angus steers, he said.

He said Mayor-elect Mike Benzel had told him that it would take Midwest Energy, the area's power supplier, three to four days to restore power to the town. In the meantime, the town is using a generator to run the sewer and water systems.

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