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Rural KS faces challenges

It's not surprising that cleanup following the historic cluster of tornadoes that struck Kansas in May has not been easy. But for rural communities in southeastern Kansas, recovery has been particularly slow and difficult.

BY TRAVIS DUNN | BALTIMORE | August 20, 2003


"The houses that were hit they are in a million pieces all over the fields."

—Rev. Susan Rosenbaum


It's not surprising that cleanup following the historic cluster of tornadoes that struck Kansas in May has not been easy. But for rural communities in southeastern Kansas, recovery has been particularly slow and difficult, according to disaster responders there.

Perhaps predictably, the damage caused in metropolitan areas such as Kansas City and Lawrence (home of the University of Kansas), got plenty of media coverage, said the Rev. Christine Iverson, who works with both Lutheran Disaster Response and Church World Service. The same can't be said for media coverage of the destruction caused out in the hinterlands, Iverson said, and that's one of many reasons why, three months after the disaster, recovering is proceeding so slowly.

The Rev. Susan Rosenbaum, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Columbus, Kan., is also working on long-term recovery, and she has noticed the same problem.

"Since so much of the damage is rural," Rosenbaum said, "it's not like it happened right outside a metropolitan area, where you could just send in the news crews."

The lack of media attention, Iverson said, has also translated into slower and less vigorous disaster response, which was exacerbated by initial assessments that underestimated the damage to rural areas like Franklin, Mulberry and Ringo, tucked away down in the southeastern corner of the state.

That's not the worst of it, Iverson said. May's tornadoes were also atypical for that kind of disaster, considered "clean" by disaster responders (because the damage is finished as soon as the storm passes, and cleanup can begin immediately, not because tornadoes don't leave behind a mess). But these tornadoes were anything but "clean." The first wave of twisters was followed by a second not even a week later, and rain fell fairly continuously for nearly two weeks.

There was also little concentration to the damage, Iverson said, which presents more headaches. Kansas is a big state, and a lot of the damage was spread around the countryside.

"The houses that were hit they are in a million pieces all over the fields," said Rosenbaum. In addition, these scattered fragments also hampered farming, since haying season began shortly after the tornadoes hit. This situation was partially alleviated by spontaneously-formed crews of volunteers who helped pull debris from the fields.

"But there are still quite a few of them that have not been touched," Rosenbaum said.

And she has found another problem; some people affected by the storm just packed up what they could salvage and left town.

"There are some people we couldn't find because they're gone," she said. "They just left, and we may never find them."

Julie Pohl, disaster response coordinator for the Kansas East Conference of the United Methodist Church, agrees that rural, southeastern Kansas needs significant assistance.

"That's where I've seen the most need at the moment," Pohl said. The conference is receiving disaster-related financial support from the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

But until comprehensive assessments are complete in rural areas, and until affected residents get definitive answers from their insurance companies, targeting scarce resources is tough.

While this is a normal process after a disaster, the Rev. Iverson thinks that, in this case, the process is taking a lot longer than it should.

"A lot of people are still not settled with insurance, and that's a big issue which really holds things up," she said. "It's taken a long time to get to the point where we're at now. They don't know what their resources are, so we don't know what their resources are. So things are just dead in the water.

"We're still waiting on insurance," agreed Pohl. "Because we want to make sure that everyone's resources are used properly so there is no duplication of services."


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