Residents, officials roll up their sleeves for what's next

05/07/2007 1:01 AM

01/24/2008 5:15 PM

As rain fell softly Sunday, work crews sifted through the rubble looking for more victims, backhoes cleared U.S. 54 and crews spray-painted an orange "V" on vacant houses.

Talk of rebuilding this town, leveled by a tornado Friday night, also surfaced.

"The town will be back. I have no doubt of that," said Dick Hainje, regional administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

At least 10 people, eight from the Greensburg area, were known dead from the weekend storms, and 17 remained in critical condition in area hospitals late Sunday.

President Bush declared parts of Kansas a disaster area, freeing up federal money to aid in recovery.

"It's going to take a long time for the community to recover," Bush said Sunday after attending a morning service at a church in Washington. "And so we'll help in any way we can."

"There's a certain spirit in the Midwest of our country, a pioneer spirit that still exists, and I'm confident this community will be rebuilt," he said.

The tornado was an EF-5, the most severe, scientists said Sunday. It had winds estimated at 205 miles per hour, traveled 22 miles and was more than a mile and a half wide.

The Enhanced Fujita scale now used to rate tornadoes does not go any higher, said Dan McCarthy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Norman, Okla.

"This one was probably as close to what I saw in the Oklahoma City

tornado in 1999," he said.

That twister killed 36 people. Half a dozen died from the separate tornado that struck Haysville and Wichita that night.

As evidence of how powerful the winds in Greensburg were, McCarthy pointed to what he saw in the wreckage of Greensburg High School, built around the turn of the 20th century. He is the son of a bricklayer and said the brick workmanship in the school building "was as good as I've seen anywhere." And yet the storm tore that formidable structure to pieces.

The damage forced cancellation of the last three weeks of school for the district's 300 students, said superintendent Darin Headrick.

There will be a high school graduation, he said.

"But when and where, we don't know yet," Headrick said.

Soldiers and police manning the barricades outside Greensburg will let the town's residents return from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. today to search for belongings, said Steve Hewitt, the town administrator. Rescuers are worried about injuries, but want to allow residents to save and salvage what they can for one day.

To help make this happen, buses will arrive at the shelters at Mullinville and Haviland every two hours to transport residents.

Returning residents will be surveyed at checkpoints in an effort to find any who have not been accounted for.

Maj. Gen. Tod Bunting, the state's adjutant general, said officials did not know if anyone was missing.

"A lot of people have gone to other places and it's difficult to track them down," he said.

Search and rescue efforts will continue. "We'll continue that until it's finished," Hewitt said.

Hainje said FEMA is bringing in mobile homes and travel trailers. There has been no place for them to go, because the roads were covered with debris.

After a tour of the ravaged town Sunday, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said the Iraq War has taken half of Kansas National Guard's Humvee and flat-bed trucks, which could have been used in the recovery effort.

"Not having the National Guard equipment is really going to hamper this effort to rebuild," she said.

Survivors

Before touring Greensburg, Sebelius visited the shelter in Haviland to talk to survivors. One of them, Dennis McKinney, the House minority leader, broke down in tears.

McKinney lost his home to the tornado and went door to door to make sure neighbors were OK. He pulled a woman and her 9-month-old baby out of the rubble of their home, which had no basement.

"It's good to see all of you," he said to the governor, her staff, and U.S. Rep. Jerry Moran.

Sebelius touched his arm; Moran put his hand on McKinney's shoulder.

Sebelius spoke to them:

"This is an opportunity for the National Guard troops to help rebuild," she said. "That's what they do."

Sebelius acknowledged the frustration residents felt about not being allowed to return to Greensburg until today, but emphasized that safety concerns were the reason.

"Let me just tell you that I know Kansans are resilient," she said.

People in Kansas are used to having their lives disrupted by weather, she said.

"This is a pretty harsh blow dealt by Mother Nature. She wasn't very kind to this area."

She said the federal disaster declaration signed early Sunday by President Bush paves the way for assistance that will begin to arrive soon.

The president's action makes federal funding available to affected people in Kiowa County. Assistance can include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses, and other programs to help individuals and business owners recover from the effects of the disaster.

Federal money also is available to state and eligible local governments and certain private nonprofits on a cost-sharing basis for emergency work and to repair or replace damaged facilities in Kiowa County.

School's out

While there won't be formal classes the remainder of this spring, school in Greensburg will resume in August, Headrick said.

Officials don' t know how or where yet. Perhaps portable classes, or classes in neighboring towns.

Before any decisions are reached, administrators hope to meet with parents, students and teachers to talk it over.

"Our teachers will have jobs; our kids will have classrooms to attend," Headrick said.

"This is going to be a huge hurdle for people to overcome, but it will also be a huge opportunity," he added.

The golf and track teams will try to keep competing, he said. They are contenders to go to state championships later this month.

"We'd sure like to get them there if we can," Headrick said.

He hopes to reassure students and parents about the future of the school soon.

"For now, we're just telling people that summer vacation just started a little early," he said.

"This is a really good school with good people," he added.

Although the school disintegrated, the vaults containing permanent records appear to be intact, he said.

Headrick said he rode out the tornado with principal Randy Fulton in Fulton's basement. They watched the storm on television.

"The pressure change was unbelievable," Headrick said.

They huddled in a living room in the basement, then moved to a bedroom as the storm hit.

"It was ten seconds between when we shut the door and the house blew," Headrick said. "Randy looked up, and it was just sky."

People wondering about school issues can go to www.usd422.org.

Officials hope to have information about classes and activities posted as soon as possible, Headrick said.

Help is on the way

More help for the area's recovery will arrive today.

The Kansas Department of Revenue said its motor vehicles division will open the Pratt driver's license office today between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., so storm survivors can get replacement driver's licenses and identification cards.

Car titles for residents of Kiowa County also will be available from the county treasurer's office in Pratt after Tuesday.

A mobile one-stop service center in Haviland to process new driver's licenses, provide insurance services, and other services will be operational by Tuesday, the department said.

FEMA director R. David Paulison is due in Greensburg today.

FEMA said that those who sustained losses in the counties designated for aid can begin applying for assistance today, registering at www.fema.gov, or by calling 800-621-FEMA(3362) or 800-462-7585 (TTY) for the hearing and speech impaired.

The toll-free telephone numbers will operate from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. CDT today through Sunday.

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

Representatives from State Farm insurance said they have 250 to 300 homeowner clients they are going to help with recovery now.

They have sent 25 agents and will set up a temporary office today in the Greensburg area.

There will be mobile home trucks parked outside the ruins of the high school.

Insurance representatives will begin issuing cash advances to people, said Peggy Schmidt, a State Farm representative.

A team from American Family Insurance also has been in the area meeting with residents.

By Sunday, more than 50 claims had been filed for tornado-damaged homes, businesses and farms, the company said.

That number was expected to rise.

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