Special Reports

May 7, 2007

Greensburg survivors survey what is lost, appreciate what is left

The house was built in 1925, but it didn't become their home until eight years ago, when Diann moved from El Dorado to Greensburg to marry David.

The house was built in 1925, but it didn't become their home until eight years ago, when Diann moved from El Dorado to Greensburg to marry David.

They worked at the hospital, he in maintenance, she in materials management. When they weren't on the clock, the Rogerses spent the evenings out in their yard, weeding the black-eyed Susans.

"I'm not a gardener," says Diann, but neighbors would often stop to admire her 1-acre spread, tucked between a motel and a tractor dealer.

Friends would ask for plantings from the garden or make conversation while the couple worked on their backyard gazebo.

Diann, a petite 60-year-old who looks even smaller as she leans toward her husband, clutching his hand, says she doesn't know what's left of the lawn. On Sunday morning, she and David have been transferred from one Haviland shelter to another. They sit in the bleachers of the high school gym, trying to describe what happened.

When an acquaintance comes by and jokes "your house

looks cute -- it's just sitting in the street," the Rogerses exchange the telepathic glances common among husband and wife. It's not a laughing matter.

Like so many other couples, they settled in after dinner Friday, content to watch a little TV. When the sirens sounded, they made for the basement. Dave had never been through a tornado, but Diann remembered the El Dorado twister of 1957.

They clutched each other in the dark, Diann sheltering their pet finch's birdcage between her legs.

"I still have bruises all along here," she says, running her hands over her thighs. Try as she did to protect Squeaks, the little finch didn't make it.

"I didn't have the heart to tell her about that till yesterday," says Dave, a sandy-haired 52-year-old whose smile is slow coming.

When the house lifted off its foundation, the wind took the blanket they were using for cover. They grabbed a curtain as it blew by and used it to shield their bodies from the hail.

Diann remembers hearing a huge boom. For Dave, it was silent.

"I can't for the life of me figure out how nothing landed on us," he says. "It looked like shrapnel. There was debris everywhere."

When it was over, Dave crawled over their washer-dryer and pulled Diann into the night air. They followed the sounds of their neighbors to the motel.

Inside its reinforced-concrete basement, they gathered with others whose path had taken them through Greensburg that night.

There must have been about 30 of them down there, Dave says: truckers, travelers, the motel manager.

By the time search and rescue teams loaded them all onto an eastbound charter bus, Dave and Diann had befriended a woman traveling to Dodge City.

Somewhere in the wind and the rain she'd lost track of her mother-in-law. As Dave says, Diann is a nurturer. She made sure they stuck with the woman into Saturday morning, helping her look for her family.

"We didn't spend the night anywhere," Diann says. "Last night was the first time we slept."

Now, while Red Cross workers steer evacuees toward the FEMA representatives in the back of the gym, Diann wonders when they'll get a chance to see their house again.

"I'll give you our address," Dave tells a newspaper photographer. "You can go by there and look at it."

A few minutes later, the Rogers run into a Red Cross spokesman. They won't be able to see their house Sunday, he tells them.

Diann's face crumples like the birdcage that failed to shelter her pet. She'd hoped to catch a ride home Sunday night. Instead, a friend offers the Rogerses a room with a relative in Buckland. As she follows them, Dave looks on. He's usually calm in a crisis. But you never know.

"I'll probably freak in a week or so," he says.

Talking it out helps. He says, "Maybe we can help other communities be prepared."

A new role

In a grove of trees just past the Pratt County line on Highway 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. It's just being in the dark that's hard."

Frost and his wife, Marquita, weathered the storm wedged between the furnace and the refrigerator in their basement. When neighbors helped free the couple from the rubble of their house at 313 South 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."

Only family left

When the storm hit, Shanda Halling was in the next town over, visiting friends. The Greensburg High School sophomore got a text message from her sister saying the tornado sirens had started. She drove home on back roads, anxious to find her mother, who'd been alone in the house.

As she made her way to the wrecked Dillon's grocery store where Greensburg residents had gathered, she took in the aftermath.

"There's nothing left of the grade school, mostly, and at the high school it's caved in, the roofs and everything.... I went by the rodeo grounds and there's practically nothing left," Shanda recalled Sunday while she waited for her mother to fill out FEMA paperwork at the temporary shelter in nearby Haviland.

They were lucky, said Shanda, a 16-year-old with blond highlights in her black hair. Her sister and brother-in-law have a house in Pratt where she and her mother can stay. They won't have to spend a night on a Red Cross cot.

"I miss the school already," she said.

She was learning to program Web pages in her computer science class, and she'd just finished making an oak coffee table in shop class.

"It had diagonal corners," she said, holding her hands at an angle to demonstrate. "But I'm sure it didn't make it."

Other belongings that may not have survived: her TV, CD player, bedroom set, photo collection, and the family car.

"It's pretty hard," she said. "But as long as I have my family, I know that's what I need now."

Later, in the shelter's cafeteria, Shanda stopped to hug a friend.

"Are you OK?" she asked.

Detailing what had happened to her house, the girl had a simple response:

"It's completely gone."

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