By Charlie Marasch
On May 4, 2007, 95 percent of the rural Kansas town of Greensburg was leveled by one of the most destructive tornadoes in recent history. Remarkably, the EF-5 rated tornado – the highest such classification – killed only 11 of Greensburg’s 1,600 residents.
Many truckers drive through Greensburg on U.S. 54 – a major truck route linking the Midwest and Southwest regions. Few would recognize old Greensburg, however, following that tornado.
Block by block, homes were crushed, dismantled and sometimes missing altogether. Trees were ripped apart and stripped of all bark. The storm flung farm animals through the air and ripped downtown storefronts apart – leaving only a few complete walls amid piles of bricks.
National television news networks and publications, including Land Line, dispatched journalists to the scene to describe how a small town, already weakened by the decline of American farming, would respond to destruction typically found in Third World countries.
One year later, the town celebrated its ongoing rebuilding with a three-day party capped by an appearance by President Bush. Greensburg Greentown and a slew of other slogans are being used to tout Greensburg’s new environmentally friendly purpose.
Land Line spoke with OOIDA members and Greensburg residents about the anniversary of the tornado that changed the town, and their lives, forever.
Like a cactus in the desert, a new water tower rises from the ground just two blocks south of U.S. 54 in downtown Greensburg. The structure is surrounded for blocks mostly by bare ground and empty streets.
For months those city blocks were littered with piles of wood, cinder blocks and rooftop debris that were removed by the truckload.
Installed in March and painted green and white in mid-April, the water tower replaced the one that was smashed by the 2007 tornado. Locals say the tower’s green paint represents a shift from Greensburg’s previous small town image to one built to be energy efficient from the ground up.
The Greensburg City Council voted in December 2007 to build all city structures to meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards for environmental sustainability and energy efficiency. Owners of many nongovernmental buildings also are attempting to meet LEED standards.
As of late April, the city had issued 133 home permits and 42 commercial building permits.
Fleener Furniture & Floor has reopened in a new building downtown, and the Greensburg State Bank is keeping temporary quarters until a new “green” bank location opens.
Although new buildings have risen, the promise of a bigger and better Greensburg isn’t without controversy.
Longtime grocer Dillons – whose building was badly damaged in the storm – decided against re-building a full store and instead added onto a convenience store.
Retailers Duckwalls and Dollar General also are not returning, disappointing some shoppers.
Just weeks after the town went into survival mode, Mayor Lonnie McCollum resigned from office. Many neighbors blamed the crush of expectations and pressure as the world watched every move the townspeople made.
In early April this year, Greensburg voters elected Mayor Bob Dixson, the town’s third leader since the tornado.
On the rebound
Three days a week, Larry Wingfield drives from his adopted hometown of Wichita to make drops in Garden City, Dodge City or other western Kansas towns.
While westbound on U.S. 54, Wingfield passes through the progress of new homes and stores rising from the shambles of Greensburg, his former hometown where he met and married fellow area native Barbara.
Large homes designed to be energy-efficient are replacing many of the single-story ranches that once lined city streets, said Wingfield, an OOIDA member. While impressive, they’re also a reminder that the tornado drove many residents from the town for good.
On May 4, 2007, Larry and Barbara hid under a mattress in their basement as the tornado blew through their roof and windows and toppled their garage. The couple gritted their teeth while pulling the mattress downward as a rumble like a freight train roared above them.
The tornado totaled Larry’s 1998 Freightliner Classic, ending his one-man, one-truck operation. Only a few days after the tornado, the Wingfields moved 100 miles east to Wichita. Larry is now a company driver.
The temporary loss of shelter for Greensburg residents was followed months later with a mandate that all municipally owned buildings be built to meet the LEED standards.
“Everything in town is going green,” Larry told Land Line. “They’re just changing the whole town all around. I can understand saving energy but not when it comes to hurting me in my pocketbook. We’re not going to move back for the simple reason that it would be outrageously expensive for us.”
Although Larry is committed to being careful with his money, his heart sometimes tugs at him as his truck rolls through Greensburg.
“My wife would like to move back – she misses the small town feel,” Larry said.
The tornado also demolished the ranch home of Michael and Sharyl Terryn, OOIDA members from rural Greensburg. Michael had broken his leg earlier that spring, which turned out to be a blessing. He was able to stay at home to help his family cope with the tornado’s destruction.
The Terryns – who now live six miles north of town – found that rebuilding their 1,400-square-foot home would run more than $300,000. Instead, the family put a double-wide on farm property outside of Greensburg.
“I’m almost 60 years old,” Michael said. “Can you see me going to a banker saying, ‘I need to borrow $200,000?’ He would have laughed me out of the bank. I’ve got nothing against the town going green, but I just couldn’t afford it.”
Darrell and Velda Wadel won’t ever forget hearing glass crashing as the nearly two-mile-wide tornado made its way past their family farmhouse on its way out of town on U.S. 183 that spring evening in May 2007. The lights and all electricity had shut off. Hail battered their farmhouse and their 2007 Volvo 780, nearly punching through their trailer wall.
The Wadels, who are both OOIDA life members, later drove into town and were stunned to see that 95 percent of Darrell’s hometown had been decimated. Shell-shocked neighbors covered by debris wandered the streets, and an eerie silence was punctuated only by howling dogs.
The Wadels and several other families transported friends around town to search for possessions and shared tears with neighbors who lost loved ones killed by the tornado.
Velda and Darrell often talk of how grateful they are to have been spared by the tornado. The tornado’s torrential wind and hail left a permanent dent on the Wadels’ long-haul business.
The twister damaged their truck and their trailer, making trucking’s recent slowdown a bit tougher to stomach.
“Our semi took a pretty good beating,” Velda told Land Line. “It’s not a pretty picture right now. We’ve thought about selling our truck and being company drivers.”
While some OOIDA members were forced to leave Greensburg and haven’t been heard from, others want to keep in touch with the town.
Larry and Barbara revisited Greensburg on May 5. They ran into old friends and admired new apartment buildings built near the high school.
Velda said she and Darrell make a point of cruising through town to watch new homes pop up, and families return to dormant blocks.
“We’re astounded every time we come into town at how much is going on,” Velda said.
New basements are being poured, and the town’s rebuilding ceremonies have made daily headlines in the local Kiowa County Signal newspaper.
Greensburg is making its way back to being home again – at least relatively so.
The city had a ribbon-cutting ceremony to mark the water tower’s installation, and a barbecue marked the anniversary of the tornado.
Like that green and white water tower, it’s one more sign of a town’s rebirth, one seed at a time.