Elevator signals Greensburg's rebirth

01/24/2008 5:15 PM

01/24/2008 5:15 PM

One month after surviving a tornado that destroyed most of Greensburg, the massive concrete grain elevator offers one of the first signs that the community's rebuilding effort has begun.

It is at Southern Plains Co-op that the town's first new construction project is well under way. While the business rebuilds the office demolished when the May 4 tornado swept through town, 14 employees and three summer workers are preparing the elevator for the wheat harvest about two weeks away.

"For staying power, the old skyscraper there is here to stay," location manager Danny McLarty said as he motioned toward the structure from the makeshift mobile office trailer where he now works.

Monday marked the one-month anniversary of the tornado that destroyed 95 percent of this Kansas farming community. In that time, the progress on debris removal has been noticeable but much remains to be done.

No one is more aware of that than city administrator Steve Hewitt, who has spearheaded the town's cleanup and recovery while dealing with the loss of his own home. From his new office in the trailer now housing City Hall, he took inventory Monday of how much has been done and called the cleanup so far a tremendous success.

"We see progress every day," he said. "Every day is better than the last."

About 75 percent of the debris left by the tornado has been removed. About half of the water system has been restored and the water is drinkable. The sewer system had only slight damage and about 20 percent of the town has temporary electric power.

U.S. 54, the highway connecting Greensburg with Wichita to the east and New Mexico to the west, reopened to through traffic Monday.

"We are excited about getting our town back, but it is going to be a tough road," Hewitt said.

All the town's residents are out of shelters, living with friends or in travel trailers set up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the neighboring communities of Haviland, Pratt and Bucklin.

The first wave of more permanent mobile homes is expected June 15, with a total of 350 permanent trailers set up just south of town. Hewitt said he expected families to live in them for 24 to 30 months while they rebuild their homes.

But many will never come back, including former Mayor Lonnie McCollum, who recently resigned, citing fatigue and a desire to spend time with his family rather than at countless meetings planning the rebuilding.

"That is reality. Some people cannot come back. It is too painful, too hard. He is one of many who can't come back," Hewitt said.

On Monday, Paula Neier sorted through the remains of the antique mall where she once had four booths. A salvaged sign, reading "Antique sale here," was firmly planted outside the ruins, a wry comment on the widespread destruction. Her own house outside town was spared and she has three displaced families -- including the owners of the antique mall -- living with her.

She is uncertain whether she will return to the antique business. "I'd like to, time will tell," Neier said as she searched through the broken knickknacks and other antiques scattered among the bricks and lumber.

"The town itself is kind of like a ghost town," she said.

More than 100 businesses were located here before the tornado, and residents have been told at town hall meetings that 53 of them have already said they will not rebuild, Neier said. Townspeople will especially miss the grocery store and pharmacy, which have indicated they may not return, she said.

But a convenience store has already repaired its storefront and is selling a few goods. There is fuel available and a trailer houses a bank amid the destruction of the city's downtown.

A portable hospital has opened with the help of the military, and even the post office has recently opened in a makeshift trailer so residents can pick up their mail.

The frenzied activity that came in the days after the storm has subsided as agencies downsize their operations. The National Guard, Kansas Department of Transportation and other emergency response agencies have pulled most of their people out, Hewitt said. The city is asking for volunteers to help take up the slack.

Donnie Beltz lost her home in the tornado after it was thrown six feet off its foundation. She and her husband rode out the storm in the house, and they will never forget the noise of things falling and limbs hitting their home. They could feel the house move but no one inside the house was injured.

The couple, in their 70s, lost 10 of the 50 sheep they raised and on Monday they took the remaining herd to the sale auction. Her cats have been so traumatized since the tornado they still refuse to come out from underneath the house except to eat. The dog won't let the couple out of his sight and even their parrot becomes visibly agitated whenever the wind picks up.

"They remember," Beltz said.

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