Hope, determination in Greensburg

Faith-based groups map long-term recovery plan as town slowly picks up the pieces.

BY LAURA HALLEMAN | GREENSBURG, Kan. | May 18, 2007


Aerial view of what remains of Greensburg.
Credit: FEMA

With each passing day, Greensburg continues to clear hurdles, small and large, and get a step closer to normalcy in the aftermath of a devastating tornado which nearly wiped the rural town off the face of the earth.

One reassuring sign that the town will not be forgotten is the fact that numerous faith-based groups that are on-site now say they have no plans of leaving anytime soon.

On Thursday, Cherri Baer, disaster response and recovery liaison for Church World Service, and Rocky Meast of Lutheran Disaster Response presented suggestions at the Kiowa County Ministries Executive Committee meeting on how to help affected residents cope with the aftermath of the tornado. They also discussed how faith-based groups could coordinate efforts to implement a recovery plan.

"We received a positive response from Kiowa County Ministries and they're very pleased at the pastoral care residents are receiving," Baer said.

She added that individual congregations were planning to meet with their parishioners Sunday, rather than have a community service as they did the previous Sunday, in order to talk more specifically with them about how they were coping.

The tornado killed 12 people in Kansas, including 10 in Greensburg.

One obstacle that is being chipped away at is finding office and volunteer space for faith-based organizations that plan to provide disaster recovery. Groups such as the United Methodist Committee on Relief were looking at the option of opening a long-term recovery office in Haviland, a town 10 miles east of Greensburg.

Mennonite Disaster Service has begun the process of setting up a staging area for its volunteers on the north side of town. Although it does not have the capacity to house volunteers, it hopes to have a more permanent setting soon.

"We're committed to be here for the foreseeable future," said Jerry Klassen, MDS project coordinator. "Right now, we can only accept volunteers who can drive in for a day because we just can't house people as of yet."

Organizations that have responded include Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, American Baptists, Lutheran Disaster Response, Adventist Community Services, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, Week of Compassion and The Salvation Army, which was operating four mobile feeding units that can serve up to 2,000 people a day.

The Salvation Army reported that since it arrived shortly after the May 4 tornado, it has served more than 20,000 meals to residents, emergency responders and search-and-rescue crews. It has also provided vouchers worth more than $147,000 to affected residents to allow them to purchase items such as food, clothing and prescriptions.

Many of the organizations that have responded to the south-central Kansas town were, or still are, involved in relief efforts along the Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina. Because of that experience, they said they understand the complexities and challenges that Greensburg faces and the importance of working together to not duplicate services.

While faith-based groups have been busy organizing for the future, so, too, has Greensburg.

Progress was being seen in the town of about 1,600 people. Electricity was partially restored to areas north and east in the community. Dillon's, the local grocery store now operating out of a trailer, was set to reopen its doors in three to six weeks. Modular buildings have been moved next to where city hall once stood and will house the police department and city employees.

School officials, meantime, said they hoped students could start school in the fall in the town. About 300 students, from kindergarten through high school, would be housed in mobile units.

Of all the buildings that were destroyed in the tornado, the Kiowa County Memorial Hospital was the one facility that residents said they wanted back up and operating as quickly as possible.

They are expected to get their wish Monday when a makeshift hospital reopens in the heart of town. Several temporary huts were erected as a temporary hospital, but with all of the services the former hospital offered, including a pharmacy, emergency room, physical therapy and room for up to 25 beds.

With each load of debris hauled off to the landfill, with each business reopening and with the comfort of knowing that Greensburg will not be forgotten by the many volunteer organizations, observers say the mood of residents seems to have shifted to hope and determination in reclaiming their town.


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