Special Reports

August 5, 2007

Greensburg's people facing tough choices

If you had to start over, rebuild your life from scratch, what would you do? If you had no home. No business. If the town where you're raising a family was reduced to dirt, with only scattered remains of buildings and homes. Forget about schools and churches. Nothing's left.

If you had to start over, rebuild your life from scratch, what would you do?

If you had no home. No business. If the town where you're raising a family was reduced to dirt, with only scattered remains of buildings and homes. Forget about schools and churches. Nothing's left.

Where would you go now, and how long would it take to get there? Would your town be rebuilt bigger and better, as leaders promise, and could you afford to stay around to find out?

"You feel so lost. You don't have anything and you don't know where to go," said Kathryn Koerner, explaining how she and her neighbors are feeling. "You can't live on May 5 your whole life.... You've got to move on."

May 5. That's the day, three months ago today, when residents of Greensburg, a small town on the Kansas Plains, woke up and were slapped with the realization that the lives they had were gone. A massive tornado that killed 10 people erased what they'd worked so hard to build inside this community of nearly 1,500.

They still see the leftovers from the devastation brought by the storm's 200 mph winds. But they also see the signs of Greensburg coming back, though nobody knows how many people will.

About 90 percent of the debris has been hauled off. The water is drinkable and has been for weeks. Four businesses are up and running, and frames of new houses are cropping up. Permanent electricity across town is expected by the end of the year. The grocery store has confirmed it's rebuilding. Nearly 300 people are living in FEMA trailers and 100 others are in other parts of town.

Crews are erecting a temporary K-12 school where the old elementary and junior high used to sit. School starts Aug. 15, and soon after kids will even have a temporary auditorium where they'll eat lunch and the volleyball team will practice.

And the trees, those mature oaks and maples stripped of their bark and branches during the storm, now are spotted with tufts of greenery. Residents call them "our Chia Pets."

"Every day, it gets a little better," said City Manager Steve Hewitt. "We're getting back to normal."

But there's also worry, which spreads across this devastated town like the wild sunflowers now growing again. Will the city's red tape only draw out the rebuilding process? And will it frustrate residents to the point they throw up their hands and move on?

Danny Coggins said that may have been him, but his daughter wants to graduate from Greensburg High School, where she'll be a sophomore. So he's put up with what he calls "nitpicking" by out-of-town housing inspectors and had patience with officials he said aren't moving fast enough.

"Quick as I could, I wanted to rebuild. But they don't encourage you," said Coggins, who's among those feeling bogged down by the codes and permits required to build. "There's a lot of rules and regulations people weren't used to.... It's such a slow process."

Will people like Paul and Barbara Dean have the time and money it takes to invest in the type of progressive community some envision?

They lost everything except two or three pairs of Paul's jeans, a few of his denim shirts, and afghans made by his mother that they found in the fields around their home. They combed those fields for days -- and still do, admits Barbara -- hoping to find more.

"When you're coming up on 70 years old, and you lost everything you own --"Paul said as he stopped and broke down. "You hope you can rebuild, but you just don't know yet. It's hard to commit when you don't know which way the city is going."

A bigger, better town

City leaders say they want one thing: To rebuild a bigger and better Greensburg, a town that draws tourists yet keeps the small-town qualities that have made it special.

Why not start over by building the nation's model of an environment-friendly town? Stick to those high building standards put in place before the storm so one day your town is really something.

"There's a percentage of people who would build the city back exactly the way it was.. ," said new Mayor John Janssen, who inherited the office nearly three weeks after the tornado when Lonnie McCollum resigned. "I see absolutely no point in that.... The bright spot to me was we had a clean slate, we could do something great."

The town truly is that clean slate Janssen talks about.

Walk down Main Street and you see just one, century-old building still standing. It's there where Janssen would like to see his town memorialized.

Make it a place where residents and tourists can go and see what Greensburg used to be. Some like his idea, he said, others not so much.

"I think we need to trade on the tornado," Janssen said. "Bring people in here, show them what we have.... Like it or not, people are fascinated with terrifying events."

Also in the downtown area, there could be a museum for the town's Big Well (the world's largest hand-dug well) and for the pallasite meteorite known as the Space Wanderer found in a local wheat field.

Another idea being floated is moving one row of Main Street businesses over a block to make room for an expansive green space where kids could play in a fountain area.

"What we're trying to do is build a loop around here," Janssen said, standing in the middle of Main Street.

Building 'green'

Then there's the idea of building "green," creating a town that's environmentally efficient from the ground up.

"We can't mandate green, but we can encourage it," said Hewitt, the city manager.

Many are encouraging Greensburg to go this direction, including Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who just days after the tornado brought up the notion.

And now the Discovery Channel has approached the city about filming a 13-segment reality show on Greensburg rebuilding. "Eco-Town" would show the process of how a town becomes "green."

Janssen is almost giddy about the television show and the crew coming in. Actor Leonardo DiCaprio is a partner in the project and could visit Greensburg during the process.

"Those people have connections we've never thought of and they're bringing them to our town," he said. "We know there are resources out there, but we're so busy fighting the daily fight we don't have time to go get them. They can get them and they can bring it all to the table."

Building green, though, can be more expensive.

"But in the end, it'll be cheaper for a town," Hewitt said.

Leading by example will help with that, he said. That's why the town leaders need to "go green" when rebuilding city facilities, Hewitt said.

"It's pressure, yes, but it's opportunity," he said.

It feels good to go home

Robert Koehne is too old to rebuild, a fact he almost apologizes for.

He'll soon be 85, and since his wife died of pancreatic cancer 14 months ago, he lives alone. After the tornado, which wiped out his home on Walnut Street, Koehne has lived in neighboring Haviland.

"It gets lonely," he said.

Which is why two or three times a week he makes his way to Greensburg. Here, he wraps his gloved hands around the grips of a wheelbarrow or shovel and helps clear a neighbor's land.

He feels he's right where he needs to be -- in a town he said is home.

"I'm already loving to be back here," Koehne said, wiping sweat from his forehead as other volunteers keep moving around him. "Even though it's sickening to see it all."

He lived in Greensburg for the past 14 years.

And he's grateful to be helping his town come back together. If he's lucky, he may one day live here again. It's the hope that keeps him going.

Across from where he's standing is where the high school used to be. Now, there are plans to build an affordable senior citizen apartment complex.

Koehne is on the waiting list for one of the apartments.

"I'm on the top of the list," he said as a smile swallows his face. "That's what they told me."

'We're leaving'

Kathryn Koerner still hates to say it. It's as if hearing herself say the words make it that much more final.

"We're leaving," she said, stepping out of the way of many family members helping load a trailer headed to the Koerners' new home in McPherson, a couple of counties away.

The decision, she said, didn't come easy. Her husband, Raymond, was the manager of the local Dillons grocery store.

In the days after the tornado they waited to hear if the store would rebuild in Greensburg. They stayed in a hotel room for weeks and waited.

When there still wasn't any word, they began looking for a new home in another town. Dillons gave him a manager's job at the McPherson store.

"You make a decision because you have to at the time, not because you want to.. "Koerner said. "People tell us they understand. We're all in the same boat. Life goes on."

It's been tough, though. She and Raymond raised a family here. Two kids graduated from Greensburg High School. They built a home in a great old house that survived an earlier tornado, but succumbed to this one.

"I'm going to miss the west sunsets," she said, looking at her land. It's tough to tell where their house once stood. "I'll miss the view out here."

By the time Dillons announced the store would come back, the Koerners had found a home in McPherson. But they don't plan on selling their property in Greensburg. Not yet.

The Koerners will wait to see what the town does. Then, who knows, they may be packing again.

Kathryn said, "Maybe we'll be back."

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