Jay Copp 0000-00-00 00:00:00
Stephen Kirk saw the storm chasers on the highway as he returned to Greensburg that Friday night. He flipped on the TV. Meteorologists grimly pointed to the ugly swirl on the Kansas map and warned that the monstrous twister was bearing down on the town of 1,400. So Kirk took refuge in his basement with his wife. “Our ears popped and the windows exploded. The air was filled with smoke and dust and I don’t know what,” he recalls. When the deafening roar became still, Kirk climbed his basement stairs and gaped at what he saw. His neighbor’s house was a pile of rubble. His own home was not much better. “I yelled down to my wife, ‘We lost the front end of our house,’ ” he recalls. The county seat, Greensburg had a prosperous Main Street that stretched for three blocks. The landmark was Hunter Drugs with its old-fashioned soda fountain complete with red leatherette and chrome stools. The wheat and milo farms encircling the town provided jobs and stability. On Sundays, the town’s 11 churches welcomed pew after pew of congregants, many from families here for generations. That Greensburg ended in minutes. Three years ago this May, a ferocious F-5 tornado, one of the largest in Kansas history, leveled 95 percent of the town. Gone were its hospital, schools and Main Street businesses. Only one church survived. Residents clambered out of their storm shelters and basements to find a strange, denuded landscape. Rubble ruled. In an instant, lives were irrevocably altered. “I knew that night my identity had changed. I was a tornado survivor,” says Kirk, a banker and a Lion. During the past three years residents have embarked on a journey of recovery. They’ve embraced a plan to rebuild as a green city, erected hundreds of new homes and businesses and hosted a president and professional athletes, a TV documentary crew and thousands of volunteers, all inspired or intrigued by the town’s resolve to endure Comeback in Kansas Lions Help Town Recover from Devastating Tornado by Jay Copp Despite the destruction. Greensburg residents, close-knit but also stubbornly self-reliant, quickly realized their individual fates were intertwined. Serving the common good was essential to preserving the town. That held true for Lions, too. The aims of the club merged with the needs of the town.Lions lost their homes and their town was in crisis. Flipping pancakes, serving on the chain gang at football games and providing eyeglasses gave way to a new universe of need and service. Modern Pioneers Greensburg today is a patchwork of new frame homes and empty lots. Crews of denim-clad construction workers are visible from most vantage points. Solitary trees, stripped of branches and foliage, stand like lonely sentries. Left with one salvageable building, Main Street is filled in for one block on both sides. “This certainly looks like no other small town in America right now,” says Joah Bussert of GreenTown, a non-profit group helping to rebuild the town. Adds Ruth Ann Wedel, a longtime Greensburg resident now serving as an office coordinator for GreenTown, “Welcome to our world of dirt and mud. You have to be a kind of pioneer to live here.” Behind her is a pre-twister detailed map of Greensburg. “All the trees on our map served a purpose. They stopped the wind. There’s always construction material blowing around.” The tornado killed 11 people. Nearly 1,000 single- family dwellings were destroyed and 110 businesses suffered heavy damage. Before the twister, more than a quarter of Greensburg residents were 65 or older; the town had been steadily losing population as young adults moved away in search of better jobs. Shortly after the tornado, one newspaper speculated that the disaster may have constituted a “mercy killing” for a town with its best days behind it. Hundreds of Greensburg residents moved away, disheartened at losing their livelihood or home or deeming themselves too old to start over here. Hundreds others, uncertain of their ultimate plans, bided their time in “Femaville,” the trailer park made possible by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Today the population stands near 900. Greensburg has issued 192 permits for new homes. The new hospital opened in March. The new school will open in August. Up and running are a new John Deere dealership, a Dillons grocery store and a 10-tenant business incubator building. On the edge of town is the new 14,000-square-foot pavilion of the 4-H county fairground. Also operating are the city hall, an arts center and the courthouse, refurbished for $5 million. “We’re building back better and stronger. I still want to see us come back much more. We’ll get there in five or 10 years,” says Steve Hewitt, city administrator. “Some young families have moved in. There are quality of life opportunities. There are business opportunities.” Hewitt says the recovery would have happened without its decision to go green but that strategy was helpful. Early on, the city approved a plan drawn up by an architectural firm in Kansas City, Missouri, to be a sustainable community and a laboratory for research on a sustainable lifestyle. An ordinance requires large municipal buildings to follow LEED-platinum standards, a designation certifying the structure meets the highest energy conservation standards. City leaders and GreenTown encourage residents to build energy efficient homes. Greensburg now lives up to its name. The courthouse, built in 1914, includes highly insulated walls and geothermal pumps for heating and cooling. The Arts Center, the first LEEDplatinum building in Kansas and designed and built by architectural students from the University of Kansas, features windmills and solar panels. The $25 million Kiowa County Memorial Hospital, became the first LEED-platinum criticalaccess facility in the country. Altogether, eight major buildings have received or are expected to receive LEED-platinum status, putting the town far ahead of most large cities. (New York City has five LEED-platinum buildings, for instance.) Some of the sustainability is obvious, such as the 12.5 megawatt wind farm three miles outside of town. The 10 turbines provide power to dozens of towns. Other evidence of the green infrastructure is less visible such as the insulated concrete foam (ICF) many residents have used in their new homes. Close to earth as farmers or employed in a farm-related business, Greensburg residents broadened their understanding of what green means. “Before we turned up our nose at recycling as a tree-hugging, liberal thing,” says Kirk, who notes that his household fills one garbage can per week instead of four or five now that his family recycles. Lions Labor Pointing out what had been, Steve Dawson, a Lion, slowly steers his red pick-up through the bumpy streets of Greensburg. The losses are palpable. In this empty lot stood his sister’s doughnut shop. She survived the twister but died four months later in a car accident. On another block was a home he rented out. The twister knocked that down, another home he rented and the home he lived in with his wife, Connie, a Lion, and two grandchildren. The twister also damaged the long-term care facility he managed. That night, with his family hunkered down in the basement, Dawson rushed to his workplace. It was no longer safe to make his way to the basement of the facility, so he rode it out in a hallway. “I think I was shaking more than the walls,” he says. The facility was not far from his home but the roads Were impassable and cell phones were inoperable. He didn’t find out for three and a half hours that his family survived. They consoled one another but also counted their blessings. “We all agreed that as long as the family was safe the rest didn’t mean squat,” he says. He knew about half the people who died that night including a neighbor a half block away. “He took some strong medications. He might have gone to sleep and never heard a thing,” he speculates. There also was “an older girl I knew since I was a pup. She told her kids she’d ride it out in the tub. It killed her.” The widely reported devastation touched a nerve in America. Volunteers arrived in droves: church and school groups, teenagers and retirees, bikers with long hair and moms and dads with kids in tow. FEMA set up a “volunteer village” complete with beds in refurbished shipping containers and showers and kitchens in trailers. The Lions paid for the utilities for the two years the camp ran. Some volunteers arrived in Rvs and Lions established a campground on property owned by Dawson’s two sisters. Dawson once drove a semi-truck, ran restaurants and held other jobs to make ends meet. He knew a thing or two about improvising, so he served as a volunteer coordinator. He was in charge of “where they would work, what they needed to do, places they stayed–everything.” In his pocket he kept a list of projects residents needed done, whether it was painting, installing sheet rock or clearing debris. Dawson also funneled donations to those in need. “When you give to Lions, there is no red tape. We were able to get the money to where it was needed,” he says. The club’s meetings had been at the cabin of the Boy Scout troop, sponsored by the club. But the cabin was in shambles and the members were too busy to meet regularly. So the 10 members agreed to let three of them make decisions. Dawson, Kirk and Chris Wirth, a banker, conducted club business via cell phone. Most Lions wore multiple hats. In addition to meeting urgent family and job needs, they volunteered on city rebuilding committees. Kirk, whose bank eventually relocated to across the street, served on a business sector group and Dawson was part of the health and human services group. Once or twice weekly, the committee volunteers convened in a tent outside the courthouse at their so-called public square meetings to update residents on their progress and solicit input. Amid the surge of volunteerism, the Lions club filled in gaps and took on innumerable tasks. The club replaced glasses for 10 residents, helped with funeral expenses for two people and sent flowers to other families, donated to the food bank and provided school supplies. They worked with Lions from nearby towns to dispense LCIF emergency vouchers. They purchased two large troughs to hold drinks and ice for town meetings and when communication proved to be problematic, they purchased a PA system. “We had two meetings where nobody could hear,” says Dawson. Lions from across Kansas rallied behind Greensburg. Sixty Lions wearing Alert team shirts converged on the town to cook dinner for residents and volunteers at a town hall meeting. For three days after the tornado, Past District Governor David Orr parked his mobile home on an empty lot and brought out two grills. “The line of people stood there until they quit each night,” says Dawson. The outside help from Lions continues. In March the hospital dedicated its helipad, funded by the district, LCIF and the Foothills Lions in California, who donated proceeds from its blues festival. Hardheaded Kansans Don Richards, 81, joined a Lions club in 1960 and has been a member of the Greensburg Lions since 1966. He’s endured a lifetime of tornado warnings and on May 4 told his worried son on the phone he was staying put in his home. His son persisted and so as the wind howled and the night sky seemed to grow ever darker, Richards drove to the school, a designated storm shelter. The doors were locked. So he went to the hospital. “The storm hit 20 minutes later,” he recalls. “My wife died in 2004. I had four bypass surgeries then. We were married 53 years and 20 days. That wasn’t a good year. 2007 wasn’t a whole lot better.” His house was gone. And, as county chairman, his work was just beginning. He was 79 then but needed the energy of a 29 year old. “The first six months especially we had meetings 12 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says. He didn’t have much time for Lions business. He had county business. Bolstered by insurance payments and federal funds, Kiowa County spent $3 million on roads and bridges, $5 million on the courthouse, $3.2 million on the sheriff’s office, $780,000 on the fairgrounds, $6.2 million on the commons building (library/Museum/media center/4 H center) and $400,000 on storage. Overall, Greensburg has recovered nicely, he says. “We’re where I’d thought we’d be after five years. I think we’re doing really well,” Richards says. How was Greensburg able to get back on its feet? “We’re a bunch of independent people. We’re hardheaded Kansans,” he says with a laugh. Sticking around was half the battle. Within a week of the storm residents had signed contracts for new homes. “Steve [Dawson] had the first lot. I had the second,” says Richards, sitting upright in an easy chair in his new home. Transformation Lumber and dust occupy the sanctuary of the Methodist Church. Methodists broke ground on their building four months after the tornado and the meeting rooms and offices are finished. Sitting in an office is Pastor Terry Mayhew, a Lion since 2003. His superiors had asked him To accept the position in Greensburg the very day of the tornado. There was no question of not coming. “I suppose I could have [not come],” says the soft-spoken pastor. He sees a connection between the service of Lions and ministry. “That’s my ministry. That’s where my heart is—service,” he says. Lions are “an organization you can go to if you need assistance. We keep plugging away. It doesn’t take a whole lot of people to make a difference.” Mayhew favors the green strategy. The ICF block in his church complex has helped reduce monthly gas bills from $2,500 or $3,000 monthly to $350. The support for recycling will be reflected in the church’s new stained glass windows, partly made from the old, battered stained glass. “Green is important. We need to be good stewards of what we have,” says Mayhew. Outsiders are drawn to the story of Greensburg. It’s a powerful story that taps into a commonly held belief that people and Americans of the heartland in particular are resolute and capable of overcoming huge obstacles. A year after the tornado, The Early Show on CBS came to town and titled their weeklong broadcast “Tragedy to Triumph; Greensburg Rising.” Several weeks later a Planet Green documentary on Greensburg premiered. Produced by Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company, the multi-week, multi-year series painstakingly charts the frustrations and fits-and-starts of a recovering town. But it also shines a bright spotlight on the can-do spirit and resilience of small-town America. The building blitz and hopes for the future in Greensburg can sometimes mask the underlying feelings people have of loss and sadness, Mayhew says. “People are in grief. There is loss of home, loss of business, loss of friends, loss of community,” he says. “Everybody deals with it differently. It takes time. People say get over it and deal with it. You have to walk the journey.” On the other hand, residents need to continue to honor the “transformative” experience of surviving a catastrophe. “There was some apathy here. Everybody was just going about their lives. People have told me that night changed their lives,” he says. “We don’t want people to go back to where they were.” Bond of Survival Foxhole humor is habitual in Greensburg. Residents share the bond of survival. “No matter who you were–banker or ditch digger–the tornado treated you the same,” says Dawson. Kirk nods in agreement and rejoins, “We were all knee deep in rubble.” Kirk and others speak of how surreal the experience was. Everyday life was altered; nothing was quite ever the same the morning after the disaster. “I think we went into shock. At the time we were not worried about three days from now but three hours from now,” says Kirk. Yet at the same time the realization dawned that a new resolve was needed, that everyone had to steel themselves for the long grind of rebuilding. “The middle of that night a friend said it would be tough for Greensburg to recover. He knew about other places. That was the first time that hit me. I took that as a challenge,” says Kirk. “Everybody wanted to rebuild. It was kind of like I’ll do it if you’ll do it. Lots of people saw this as an opportunity. I was already thinking about things I didn’t like about my house. I think everyone thought that way house-wise and town-wise.” Greensburg was bolstered by the outside help. President George W. Bush visited shortly after the disaster and returned a year later for the high school graduation, where he shook the hand of each graduate. Setbacks and disappointments were balanced by Hollywood-like reprieves and rescues. When the arts center project was in dire straits, DiCaprio phoned Hewitt, the city administrator, and pledged $400,000. “In a lot of ways we were Seabiscuit,” says Kirk. “That was during the Depression. The underdog horse gave people something to root for.” Hanging from the back fence of the Dawson home, visible from the highway that passes through Greensburg, is a sign that says “Greensburg says thank you to the world.” Misery loves company—when a crowd comes ready to roll up its sleeves and work. “The morale lift you get from volunteers is incredible. It just lifted our spirits,” says Kirk. For three years, the Greensburg Lions have been busy in service as never before. The recovery of their town has been testament to the power of community service, manifested in one small club and one small town. Referring both to his club and Greensburg residents, Dawson says, “We better understand the ramifications of helping. We literally gave people hope.”
Published by International Association of Lions Clubs . View All Articles.
This page can be found at http://digital.lionmagazine.org/article/Comeback+In+Kansas/371018/36085/article.html.