A tornado erased their town, so these Kansans did what Kansans do

The EF-5 tornado that enveloped this sun-baked town 10 years ago turned homes not only into splinters but into particles of dust.

It killed Norman Volz’s wife, Beverly; his father-in-law, Max McCall; his employee Larry Hoskins; and eight more people. It destroyed Volz’s home as well as his business buildings.

It put so much dust in the air that, for three months afterward, Volz and others coughed and sneezed dust and house insulation particles out of their lungs.

The tornado sucked concrete sidewalks out of the ground, dumped cars atop buildings and rammed a pickup truck nose-first through a brick wall. It picked up Dennis McKinney’s truck and dumped it a mile away.

Two days later, when McKinney’s wife, Jean, got back after an out-of-town trip, she could hear car alarms still going off in wrecked cars covered with debris and stripped of all paint.

Volz and McKinney and others climbed out of the wreckage and vowed to rebuild.

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But like all real-life stories, truth is not tidy. The truth: Greensburg had 1,400 to 1,500 people before the tornado and 800 to 900 people now, and Volz lives outside Greensburg.

Some people, like Volz, have no way to achieve a truly happy ending.

After he lost those three loved ones and after he got his knee-cap adjusted so it wasn’t free-floating inside his leg anymore, Volz went into a depression – and went to work.

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So maybe Volz’s story best tells the story of Greensburg 10 years later.

About life blown to dust.

About how a person stands up, coughing dust.

About how sometimes there is no happy ending but just a continuation. And for now, continuation is enough.

‘I waited as long as I could’

Dennis McKinney stood screaming on his back deck in the dark as the wind howled and debris began to fly like cannon shot. Next door to his house was the brick home of a young mother, Kelsey Schroth, and her baby.

She had no basement. McKinney did.

“Get over here,” McKinney kept yelling at her house.

Schroth did not come out of her home. McKinney at last ran downstairs, pushed his 14-year-old daughter, Lindy, into the bathtub, and lay down on top of her as the house broke apart above them.

Lindy wrapped her arms around Tootsie, her rat terrier, and listened to her dad talk frantically about Schroth. “I waited as long as I could! I waited as long as I could!”

And Lindy prayed out loud, in the howling wind, not for herself or her dad but for the safety of Schroth and baby Jayden next door.

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The wind died down. The McKinneys ran upstairs. Their home was blown to bits, down to the foundation.

McKinney ran to what was now a trash pile next door, staring at it in shock. What had been Schroth’s solid brick house minutes before was a flat slab with a small pile of trash on top. But then McKinney heard a faint cry: “Help me! Help my baby!” He began pulling debris off the pile.

Lindy ran to a damaged house two doors down, where Greensburg High School principal Randy Fulton was coming out of his basement. Lindy ran to Fulton and school superintendent Darin Headrick, who was with him.

Come now, she told them. Come right now.

They ran to Schroth’s house, where Dennis McKinney was frantically clawing at the trash pile.

“Help save my baby.”

Headrick also could hear the faint cries. Headrick, McKinney and Fulton pulled at debris while Lindy held a flashlight. Flashes of lightning lit the sky.

Five minutes.

Lindy held the flashlight and watched the men work.

Ten minutes.

“And then we saw a little foot sticking out,” Headrick said years later. “It was raining and dark, and in the flashlight, we saw a red fluid all over the baby.”

They grabbed the kid, turned him over and around. McKinney thought the fluid might be blood gushing from a wound in the baby’s back. The fluid was not only red but slick, like blood.

Headrick pulled off his shirt and wrapped it around Jayden, the baby. And McKinney saw, with a farmer’s eye, that the fluid was not blood at all.

It was transmission fluid, probably from a shattered car that had flown over the house during the tornado.

Baby and mother were bruised, in shock – and not seriously hurt.

This would not be Headrick’s last act of heroism for the town.

Handing out cash

The Wichita Eagle’s Greensburg story the day after May 4 started like this:

This sun-baked High Plains town no longer has a grade school, a high school, a City Hall, a hospital, a water tower, a fire station, a business district or a main street. It has people, but all 1,400 of them live elsewhere today. The homes they kept, the rooms where they were born, where they grew old together, now lie in millions of pieces, some of them as small as matchsticks. Tatters and shards of Greensburg flew for miles across the shortgrass and sage and yucca outside town on Friday night. Their branches now hold the shreds of housing insulation, pieces of tin, pieces of twisted roofing, crumpled family photographs, torn documents, and bits and pieces of belongings.

We also could have said there were no longer dentists, doctor’s offices, eye doctors, car repair shops and all other things a small town needs to keep from dying. Greensburg could easily have become only a memory and not a town.

But while the lightning still flashed, in the hour after the tornado, Tom Corns crawled through a window into the demolished Greensburg State Bank, where he was president and CEO and where his wife, Dea, worked as a cashier.

Tom Corns talks in a dry, cryptic western Kansas dialect, no flourish. People like McKinney say he and Dea helped pull shell-shocked people together quickly with what they did in those first hours. But Cornses will have none of that.

“I got the vault door open” was all he said later.

For the next few days, Tom and Dea Corns carried drawers with tens of thousands of dollars in cash out of the bank vault every morning and plopped the money in plain view, on card tables and on the trunk of a Kansas Highway Patrol car parked outside, handing out money.

Around them, all of Greensburg lay blasted flat – brick and mortar, trees and water tower.

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The Cornses weighted or tied down their cash to keep the bills from flying off.

The highway patrol put up with this for a day or two, providing security. “But they finally told us they had other things to do,” Tom Corns said. “So they left. And I told Dea to just stay out there on the corner and keep handing out money.

“Nobody stole.”

“They handed out thousands of dollars, day after day,” McKinney said. “Tom and Dea gave money to anybody, including people who were not customers of their bank. They’d write down their names and the amounts they loaned, but they handed it out to anyone who asked.

“They cashed checks anybody handed them. ‘How much do you need? Two hundred dollars? OK, here’s $200.’

“They did not lose a single dollar,” McKinney said. “They got every dollar back.”

“Some of them had no shoes,” Corns said of the people needing money. “They needed shoes. Food. Motel rooms. They needed currency.

“We also gave people access to their safety deposit boxes inside the bank. I had the National Guard bulldoze all the trash away from the front of the bank, and we let people have access, and this was very important. They needed the titles to their cars. They needed to get to their mortgage papers.

“Everybody was in the same boat,” he said. “So there was a degree of trust that is there in disasters. I don’t think it is anything unusual.”

Saving the school

Small towns in Kansas live or die depending on one thing: Is there a still a school?

Headrick helped save the town after the tornado by working fast to replace the local school, Corns said.

“Had it not been for Darin, I don’t know how we’d have kept the town.”

Headrick did all this quickly while figuring out where he’d live next, with his house blown down.

He learned that leadership and accomplishment are not about talent or skill or possessions or titles or authority but rather about relationships.

“The tornado opened all our eyes,” Headrick said. “People were living scattered everywhere; no one was living in Greensburg anymore. We’d all lost everything, but what we all found that we missed the most were friendships, neighborhoods, the daily interactions. We realized we’d lost relationships.”

When President George W. Bush showed up to help the town and the school, Headrick asked him whether having a father as president taught the second President Bush how to do the job.

Bush surprised him – he brought up relationships, made it seem personal.

“It’s a whole lot easier being president than being the son of a president,” Bush told him.

“If someone takes exception to what I do and speaks poorly of me, I let that slide,” Bush told him. “But when it’s your dad they are talking about, it’s a lot more hurtful.”

His point was that relationships are important – to sons, to fathers, to presidents. To everyone.

In the end, Headrick concluded, no matter your job, no matter your challenge, no matter how much or how little stuff you have, it’s about that.

So he led the school comeback and saved the town, according to McKinney and Corns, by doing things he might not have done before the storm.

“We set a target that we had to have a school built inside the city limits of Greensburg, and we had to have it open Aug. 15, the first day of school, three months after the storm,” Headrick said.

To do that, he and Fulton built relationships – with displaced students, with parents. “What do you want in a new school?”

“We got back 96 percent of the high school students, 50 percent of the grade school kids.”

But he and the school board didn’t just replace the school. They built with future school consolidation in mind, hoping to attract children from neighboring towns such as Haviland and Mullinville.

He forged new relationships with people from Mullinville and Haviland. People from those towns had raced to help Greensburg, he said. Now he tried to help them. “What do you all want in a new school in Greensburg?”

That laid the groundwork for when school consolidation happened after the tornado.

But he knew Greensburg needed to give up something to get cooperation. So that meant telling Greensburg residents they had to give up some of their decades-long identity.

In small towns, school names and school colors and school mascots are powerful tribal markers. People get livid, people get nasty when school consolidators try to take schools and mascots away. And yet, knowing this, Headrick and Fulton persuaded people in Greensburg to give up their tribal names, symbols and colors.

And so Greensburg High School became Kiowa County High. The Greensburg Rangers, wearing red and blue, became the Kiowa County Mavericks, wearing burnt-orange and white.

“We couldn’t expect people to send their kids in from Mullinville and other places and just adopt our identity,” Headrick said.

Headrick lives in Wichita now, working for a construction company.

The reason for his departure is one more story about why McKinney, Corns and others say he’s a man of honor.

Last year, nine years after the tornado, Headrick had to lay off people and cut school programs to make up the deficit caused by cuts in state education funding.

Taking jobs away from people bothered him.

So rather than cut all the people he would need to cut, he laid off his own wife as a school counselor – and fired himself as superintendent.

“I was not as big a loss to the district as my wife was.”

‘It’s not the same’

Nobody suffered more or did more to help this town than Norman Volz, McKinney said. Wife, father-in-law, close friend all dead. His business, his home and his kneecap all wrecked. He rebuilt them all.

He’s 64 now. He grew up out here. His neighbors say he’s as tough as barbed wire, like a lot of other western Kansans. It’s high prairie country here: flat, few trees, little shade and plenty of reasons for young people to say there isn’t much to do.

And yet – talk to student recruiters at universities, and they’ll tell you that Kansas kids from west of U.S. 81 are prized because they are more prone to study, to stay in school, to work, to achieve, to meet deadlines, to stay out of trouble.

Many people out here are farmers or children and grandchildren of farmers, so they work seven days a week when necessary.

But they could not grow their population back to what it was.

Volz, Corns, Headrick, McKinney and many others wore themselves out trying to do that.

“Everybody in town was on multiple committees,” Corns said. “A lot of public meetings, a lot of disagreeing.

“And we are smaller,” he said.

“The city, it’s not what I had hoped, but it is what I expected,” Volz said. “Jobs here don’t pay enough, some of them. Older residents moved to other towns. I understood. They didn’t have a dentist or an eye doctor and, for a while, didn’t have a hospital.

“I really felt sorry for the older ones – they wanted to be here, but it was more than what they could handle.

“It’s not the same and never will be the same.

“I told a lot of people that we’ve got to find whatever is the new normal.

“Because ... one other thing I learned ... the old normal never existed anyway.”

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