Volunteers yes, clothing no

Volunteers in Greensburg cleaning up tornado-ravaged town and farmlands.

BY LAURA HALLEMAN | GREENSBURG, Kan. | May 15, 2007


Jake Brucks helps clear a farm field of debris from May 4 tornado.
Credit: Laura Halleman

Volunteers are being warmly welcomed into tornado-ravaged Greensburg, where in addition to helping residents clean up their properties and salvage personal belongings, they are clearing farm fields of debris so crops can be harvested in the next several weeks.

"Our goal is to find an appropriate way for every volunteer on the ground to contribute and anyone that wants to is welcome," said Bruce Bailey, director of the AmeriCorps St. Louis emergency response team.

While volunteers were welcomed, officials said donations of clothing were not. Truckloads of donated clothing were being turned away due to limited storage space in Greensburg and surrounding towns. As in all disasters, officials said the best way for people wanting to donate was by making a financial donation to faith-based or charitable organizations.

Bailey said volunteers from across the nation have driven to the rural farming community in south-central Kansas to help in any way they can. The town of 1,600 people was leveled when a powerful tornado slammed the town the night of May 4.

The death toll in the town from the twister rose to 10, after a 77-year-old resident died Monday of injuries he received in the storm. Two other fatalities were reported in nearby counties, bringing the toll in the state to 12.

A large tent erected just outside Greensburg was serving as a temporary volunteer center where AmeriCorps processes volunteers coming into the area.

All volunteers are required to stop and sign in at the center. They receive a quick safety briefing and a wristband that allows them to continue into the town. No volunteers are being turned away and are welcome to help in any capacity they can, Bailey said.

Volunteers unaffiliated with a particular organization receive work assignments to match their skills. Volunteers affiliated with faith-based or other organizations, such as Mennonite Disaster Service, Samaritan's Purse and American Baptist Church USA, receive work assignments from their organizations.

Volunteer registration is not only important to plug workers in to where they are most needed, but also for financial reasons, Bailey noted. For every volunteer hour logged, up to $14 is chipped away at the amount of money the city and Kiowa County must pay for disaster relief services.

Some volunteers come for one day, others for longer. Over the weekend, the town had a huge influx of volunteers but the numbers appeared to decline early this week. Town officials and residents expressed concern about having sufficient volunteers to aid in the recovery, especially as news from the town fades from the national media.

"We had one man, a truck driver, who had some time to give come from out-of-state to help out, and a businessman in Kansas City for a meeting drove out for a day to help," Bailey said.

"It's really easy to come in and help for a week or two or a month then pull up stakes and leave," Tim Brown of The Salvation Army told a local television station. "But they need the help that lasts and they need people that are with them to the very end."

Bailey said AmeriCorps was working on an area to house volunteers, either in tents or through other means. Hotels around the region were fully booked. He stressed that volunteers needed to understand the importance of being self-sufficient.

A few miles outside of Greensburg, limited space was available for volunteers to park RVs or to pitch a tent, Some volunteers were staying in the nearby town of Haviland at Barclay College.

With about 95 percent of the town demolished, there is plenty of work to be done and volunteers are playing a key role in the recovery efforts, Bailey said.

From clearing debris with heavy equipment - or by hand - to salvaging personal belongings still sitting among the ruins of many homes, volunteers are finding their niche.

A major concern was the harvesting of crops less than one month away. Until the large amounts of debris in the farm fields surrounding Greensburg are cleared away, farmers will be unable to run their machinery to harvest their crops, said Angee Morgan, state coordinating officer for Kansas Emergency Management.

"Harvest is a vital season here," she said. "They cannot cut their crops without a lot of labor to help clear those fields, and much of it must be done by hand."

One group of volunteers from First Mennonite Brethren Church in Wichita did just that over the weekend, clearing a field filled with debris from morning to early evening.

Jake Brucks, 16, came to Greensburg with the church.

"I did what I thought I would want other people to do for me and my family if I went through this," Brucks said.

"One thing I'd like to say is that if you can find anything good at all about a disaster, it's the way religious groups, politicians and unaffiliated volunteer groups set aside their differences and come together to help in any way they can," Morgan said.


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