Special Reports

May 18, 2007

How many toothbrushes does Greensburg need?

Since the May 4 tornado churned through Greensburg, the Kansas town has become a magnet for generosity. Underlying all the giving is a definite psychology, observers and officials say.

Since the May 4 tornado churned through Greensburg, the Kansas town has become a magnet for generosity.

Underlying all the giving is a definite psychology, observers and officials say.

"I think that there's a very human connection with an experience like this. There is a certain, 'There but for the grace of God go I... this could have happened to me,' " said Don Nance, a Wichita State University psychologist with a background in counseling.

In a storm that powerful (it leveled 95 percent of the town of 1,400, killing 10), people could feel powerless. Giving offers a way to exert control, Nance said.

There appears to be a regional influence as well, or at least the perception of one. People talk about how resilient and giving Midwesterners are. Part of that, Nance said, is that many Kansans still come from the farming heritage: Farmers band together. A tornado brings out the farmer in everyone.

The disaster in Greensburg -- about 115 miles west of Wichita on U.S. 54 -- has brought a flood of generosity from near and far.

So many toothbrushes have been donated -- about 100,000 -- that every resident and every relief worker will have multiple toothbrushes for some time, said Sharon Watson, spokeswoman for the Kansas Adjutant General's Office, overseeing much of the relief effort.

A Denver sports radio station, KKFN, held a two-day drive that gathered 54,000 pounds of non-perishable food items and about $2,000 in disaster-relief donations, said station program director Tim Spence. The items are bound for the Kansas Food Bank in Wichita.

Although food and donated items like clothing can help, many relief-agency officials have been asking for cash instead, saying money helps victims the most.

Still, Salvation Army spokesman Tim Brown said he understands why many people prefer to give things rather than money.

"I think they like to see something tangible" going to victims, Brown said. To some people, cash seems too impersonal.

But he said, "Money is definitely the best way to give because we can use that for whatever the needs might be. And we can respond to things quickly."

Because relief agencies like the Salvation Army work with national retailers and buy at a discount and in volume, even a $5 donation can go a long way, he said.

Brown realizes that some people doubt whether cash donations go to the intended victims. "The Salvation Army policy is, if it is money earmarked for the disaster, 100 percent of it goes to the disaster," Brown said.

If someone writes "Greensburg tornado" on the memo line of a check, that goes into an account for Greensburg aid, he said.

Some donations haven't been so useful, although intentions were clearly heartfelt.

The pickup load of casseroles someone baked and sent to Greensburg was lovely, said Marvin Penner, a volunteer coordinator for the Mennonite Disaster Services. However, they couldn't be used because Greensburg doesn't have useable stoves to heat the casseroles or refrigerators to keep them cool.

And a lot of well-meaning people have cleared their closets of unwanted clothing. "Then we have to end up storing a lot of used clothing," Brown said.

With so many Greensburg residents in temporary housing -- doubling up with friends or family, or living in motel rooms, trailers or even tents -- there isn't room for them to store a lot.

In Wichita, Kansas Food Bank has been collecting, sorting and storing food and other items to help disaster victims in the short-term and later, when they have their own pantries to stock again. The Food Bank also has a refrigerated truck in Haviland, near Greensburg.

Sometimes food gets personalized. Brown, with the Salvation Army, has seen messages written on cans. One said: "Our hearts are with you, Greensburg."

The other day, the Food Bank got a sack full of children's books with a note from a child, written on construction paper, saying he was praying for Greensburg's children.

"It was pretty touching, so we put it on the truck that was going out there that day," said Brian Walker, Food Bank president and chief executive.

"People just want to help," Walker said.

But before holding a drive to gather more donations, Walker urges people to check with relief agencies to see what they need.

Some items that residents and recovery workers really need right now, he said, are lip balm, sunscreen, work gloves, flashlights and flashlight batteries.

Some of the things donated to Greensburg residents were not well thought-out, said Salvation Army Auxiliary Capt. Louise Lurtz, who is handling donations at the emergency response center in Haviland.

For example, most of the people of Greensburg are spending their days removing construction debris, she said.

"You can't do that in an evening dress and high heels," she said, citing one off-the-mark donation.

"There comes a point," said Watson, "when these donated items become a burden."

But displaced Greensburg resident Fay Miller was delighted with the clothing she picked up from the center, especially a black-and-white skirt, blouse and jacket ensemble by Blair Petites.

That's going to be her Sunday-go-to-meeting outfit for a while, she said.

She has to attend a wedding soon and wanted something nice enough to wear to church.

All the clothes she'd been able to salvage from the storm were unusable -- laced with asbestos and fiberglass.

"I'd been wearing the same pants for three days," she said.

Knowing of Miller's needs, Lurtz had set aside a box of clothing just for her.

But Miller's situation is different from most Greensburg residents'. She's about through grubbing through the rubble.

This week, the 66-year-old signed a contract to buy a new home in Pratt to replace the one that blew onto the garage and crushed her brand new Toyota. And she bought a car sight unseen. She doesn't plan on returning to Greensburg.

"At my age," she said, "I guess I don't feel like waiting for the trees to grow back."

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