At town meeting: facts, plans and cheers

Greensburg residents gather for a town hall meeting to get answers and talk about the future.

01/24/2008 5:15 PM

01/24/2008 5:15 PM

In an event that was part information and part pep rally for recovery, about 500 residents of this tornado-devastated community held their first mass gathering to talk about what comes next.

The mood was a mixture of confusion over what the recovery process will entail and determination that someday, somehow, the town will be restored to its former glory.

Rep. Dennis McKinney, D-Greensburg, minority leader of the Kansas House, who lost his home to the tornado, probably summed it up best when he quoted the Apostle Paul: "We're perplexed, but we're not in despair."

The hourlong meeting was mostly upbeat, punctuated by standing ovations for volunteers who had come to help, for federal, state and local officials, and for nearby towns such as Haviland and Mullinville, which have pulled out the stops to help their distressed neighbors.

But the biggest cheers were for recovery itself, when Mayor Lonnie McCollum announced, "We're going to put the town back together, there's just no two ways about it."

He promised that the home city of the world's largest hand-dug well would make a comeback.

"We just have too much going for us with the Big Well and the meteorite and a lot of other things," he said. "We can't walk away from this, and we're not going to walk away. We're going to build a brand new town and we're going to do it right."

In fact, the mayor took out the first building permit since the town was smashed by the storms that destroyed hundreds of homes and killed 11 people in Kiowa and neighboring counties.

Representatives from FEMA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Small Business Administration and the state were on hand to talk about how the federal aid system will work in the community.

For most residents, the bulk of that aid will come in the form of low-interest SBA loans -- interest 2.785 percent for homes and 4 percent for businesses.

SBA spokesman Mark Randle said the agency can make loans of as much as much as $200,000 to cover uninsured losses for homeowners, $40,000 to help renters replace lost possessions, and $1.5 million to restore businesses.

Some residents will be eligible for FEMA grants, maximum $28,200. And some low-income residents will be able to get rent assistance.

Residents were strongly urged to register with FEMA and fill out an SBA loan form. They can do that at a temporary City Hall in Greensburg or by calling FEMA's disaster assistance hotline at 800-621-3362.

But residents also learned of some limitations on help.

City Administrator Steve Hewitt emphasized that the city's primary focus will be restoring partial utility service to municipal buildings and to temporary-housing trailers. At least at first, those trailers will be installed at a single location rather than on homeowners' lots.

In addition, he said, home and business owners will have to be responsible for clearing their own property and getting the rubble hauled away.

Contractors who do that will have to be licensed by the city, which will take some time.

That didn't sit too well with Larry Rogers, whose family ran a now-toppled restaurant, florist and gift shop locally famous for extravagant Christmas displays. Rogers, whose house was also destroyed, spent much of Friday salvaging his possessions.

"Most of it's bull," he said after the town meeting. "With the town in this kind of shape, I think somebody ought to come by and clear up the debris for free."

Others were more satisfied.

"I thought it was very informative," said Galyn DeVore, a longtime football, basketball and track coach in Greensburg. Recovery, he said, "is just going to take a lot of time and patience."

Rhonda Staats is in more desperate straits. She inherited her home and didn't have insurance because she couldn't afford it on the $500-$600 she makes a month cleaning houses.

"I don't see how I can stay in the community without some kind of grant or something," she said.

Randle said even those in situations like Staats' should apply for the SBA loan. If they're not eligible -- and the loans are conditioned on the borrower's ability to pay -- the information would still help determine eligibility for FEMA money and other housing assistance.

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