Special Reports

August 30, 2007

From Udall to Greensburg: Gift of trees

Jerrold Hoffman has vivid memories of that night 52 years ago when a tornado leveled this little town, destroyed nearly all its trees and killed 77 people.

Jerrold Hoffman has vivid memories of that night 52 years ago when a tornado leveled this little town, destroyed nearly all its trees and killed 77 people.

He saw similar widespread destruction from a May 4 tornado in Greensburg, 120 miles to the west, not far from where he grew up. Something needed to be done to help.

Then it came to him -- trees.

"We think of them as a sister city. I remember how it was with no trees here," he said. "You came to Udall and felt something was wrong."

He proposed raising $10,000 for at least 200 trees to give Greensburg residents. The Udall Community Historical Society agreed in June to sponsor the fundraising and put Hoffman in charge. He thinks he's found healthy trees at a good price, though he didn't want to discuss the specifics.

"We're trying to get it all done with donated funds, but we're coming up short," he said. "I don't want to have to go door-to-door, but I may have to."

As Greensburg residents rebuild their shattered town, many welcome Hoffman's idea.

"It's something we certainly appreciate," said state Rep. Dennis McKinney, a farmer and community leader who lost his home and a dozen trees.

The two towns suffered much the same, decades apart. Their downtowns were wiped out, houses and buildings demolished, and trees uprooted and broken. Ten people died in Greensburg, a town of about 1,400. About 2,000 trees were lost.

"It was a beautiful town. It had big houses and lots of trees," said Natalee Story, who remembers the destruction in Udall. "It really was sad. No trees and no place for the kids to play."

But Udall's past creates hope for Greensburg.

Not only did its residents rebuild, the town grew from 410 residents in 1950 to 600 in 1960, only five years after the tornado. The population is now 850.

"Rebuilding is tough, but they stuck with it and 50 years later they are around to help us," McKinney said.

Trees won't be heading west from Udall immediately. Money has to be raised, but Greensburg's people also need time to rebuild.

"We're not going into a vacant lot and put up a tree. We're going to wait until the homes are ready and they can take care of them," Hoffman said.

New trees will take decades to mature into full-blown shade trees, but Greensburg can see a little of its future in Udall, which now has scores in its yards.

"They will grow to be a symbol of friendship and understanding today as well as the years to come," said Udall Mayor Chris Lette, who will be carrying trees to Greensburg in his pickup.

Udall's City Council pledged $1,000 and the city's Web site greets viewers with "Plant a Tree for Greensburg" with information about how to make donations.

Hoffman said he hopes the first deliveries will be made in October to those who have moved back and are ready for a tree. Plans also call for trips next spring and fall as more houses are rebuilt.

Homeowners will be consulted about the type of tree they want and where they want it planted. Hoffman said they won't get pencil-thin saplings but young trees at least 1 ½ inches in diameter and 10-12 feet high.

"Whatever they want, if we can get it, we will," he said. "We are doing the whole shebang for them."

Started as a railroad town in 1881, Udall is now a bedroom community about 20 miles southeast of Wichita. Most people live in middle-class homes, and a few businesses line the main street.

When the tornado touched down the night of May 25, 1955, many people had gone to bed, unaware it was heading their way. The power went out. Hail, wind and ice cold rain followed.

Hoffman recalled sitting in his car. Lightning flashes allowed him to see a nearby house coming apart.

"It was very dark and raining. When you could see somebody's face, you hardly recognized them because they were in shock," he said.

Five decades later, things look much different.

"We're getting some good trees, but it's been 52 years. You can build buildings but you can't build trees. You have to plant them and nurse them," Hoffman said.

And the message from one tornado town to another?

"We knew what they went through," Hoffman said. "We care, and we understand."

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