Groups respond to KS tornado

Greensburg death toll climbs; faith groups plan response to disaster.


The Rev. Jeff Blackburn of Greensburg Mennonite Church surveys the tornado damage.
Credit: Mennonite Disaster Service

Paul Unruh and Kevin King of Mennonite Disaster Service (left, center) survey tornado damage with the Rev. Jeff Blackburn of Greensburg Mennonite Church.
Credit: Mennonite Disaster Service

Residents were allowed back into Greensburg for the first time Monday to survey what was left of their homes after a deadly tornado leveled the rural community.

Two more bodies were found in the rubble, raising the death toll in Greensburg to 10. A survivor was pulled from the rubble on Sunday.

Federal Emergency Management Agency Director David Paulison toured the town Monday. FEMA trailers, originally intended for survivors of Hurricane Katrina, were being sent to Greensburg to house displaced residents.

President Bush was scheduled to visit the area on Wednesday, according to Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan.

In Greensburg, traffic was backed up Monday morning as officials checked identification and allowed residents into the town. Residents were required to leave at dusk.

Residents in the northeastern part of the town were forced to suspend their search through the rubble after a railroad tank car began leaking anhydrous ammonia, toxic substance used as fertilizer by farmers. The leak prompted authorities to evacuate the area as a precaution.

Kevin King, who surveyed the destruction on Saturday, said he was stunned.

"The town was just razed," he said. "It's absolutely unbelievable.

"I've never seen anything like this," said King, director of Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS). "It was so powerful. The brick walls of churches and homes, every brick was separated. It wasn't just walls that fell over together, bricks are just strewn about."

King was in the central Kansas area Friday to attend a graduation ceremony at Heston College. When he and his crew heard about the tornado, they immediately drove to Greensburg to help. Greensburg Mennonite Church and its parsonage were destroyed when the twister hit shortly before 10 p.m., but the pastor and his family were not injured.

The National Weather Service confirmed the tornado was an EF-5 with winds of more than 200 miles per hour. It left a 22-mile long path of destruction and was 1.7 miles wide.

The tornado injured 60 when it tore through the small town of about 1,600 located 110 miles west of Wichita. Two other fatalities were reported elsewhere in the state.

King said little remains of most homes. The west side of the town suffered the most damage, with every building nearly obliterated.

"There are just piles of rubble 4 feet high all over the place," King said. "Trees are stripped down to 8 and 9 feet tall."

He said a few structures on the east side of town had some walls remaining and several more buildings were still standing.

President Bush on Sunday declared Kiowa County a federal disaster area, freeing up federal funds to assist the community.

"It's going to take a long time for the community to recover," Bush said. "And so we will help in any way we can. There's a certain spirit in the Midwest of our country, a pioneer spirit that still exists, and I'm confident this community will be rebuilt. The most important thing now, though, is for our citizens to ask for the good Lord to comfort those who hurt."

Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, said recovery efforts were being hampered because much-needed equipment from the National Guard had been sent to Iraq. The White House disputed her statement.

Faith-based groups, including MDS, the United Methodist Church, the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) and Lutheran Disaster Response (LDR), were gearing up to respond.

UMCOR sent in an emergency grant. The Kansas chapter of Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) was scheduled to meet Tuesday to coordinate its response. The Salvation Army said it sent four mobile feeding units to the area and its officers were providing emotional and spiritual care for survivors. It also was providing relief and shelter to people affected by flooding in northern Kansas, South Dakota, Iowa and Nebraska

LDR was sending a representative to Greensburg and planned meetings with local churches and synod members Tuesday.

"Lutheran Disaster Response is prepared to offer assistance, as needed, in the form of emergency hardship grants and spiritual and emotional care," said Heather Feltman, executive director.

"Once the town has been reopened, we will also be working in coordination with local congregations to coordinate volunteer teams for debris removal and cleanup," she said. "Plans are being made for volunteer teams to begin working this Saturday. After initial assessment has been completed, we will help to organize residents in meeting long-term unmet needs, and volunteer coordination will likely continue through the rebuilding phase."

National and regional VOADs encouraged the public to donate funds to the responders and to not send in any unsolicited supplies or clothing. They also urged people to not come to Greensburg to volunteer, but rather to contact a responding organization to learn how to help.

Mennonite Disaster Service cleanup teams were awaiting the go-ahead to enter town to help residents. Some teams were already assisting people in other affected communities north and east of Greensburg.

King praised the nearby town of Haviland for being so open and welcoming to the hundreds of Greensburg families sheltered there. He said the mood at the shelters was one of shock.

"You can easily hear neighbors asking each other, 'Do you have a house? No? Me neither,'" he said. "And they're also saying, 'My house is gone, how about yours?' It's quite moving here for these residents."

King said the local Mennonite Church pastor and his wife, Jeff and Lori Blackburn, rode out the storm in their basement.

"He said they heard the sirens and ran to the basement, and then the sirens stopped because the electricity was knocked out," he said. "They huddled in the basement and their ears starting popping. I asked him how long it took, and he said it felt like an eternity, but it was maybe five minutes.

"The next thing they noticed was that rain started pouring in on them in the dark," King said. "He thought a pipe broke, but then when he took out his penlight and looked up, sure enough, he saw the sky."

Cherri and Bob Baer, UMCOR disaster response representatives Cherri and Bob Baer were scheduled to arrive Monday to help conference disaster ministers Nancy Profitt and Julie Pohl.

Bill Adams, CRWRC disaster response director, was also heading to Greensburg.

"The town is completely flattened so it's unlikely we'll be sending our rapid response teams, which often can provide survivors with clean up and short-term repair assistance," Adams said. "Sadly, in Greensburg, there doesn't appear to be much left to repair."

Cherri Baer predicted the emotional impact would be significant.

"We'll have to do a lot of spiritual care and listening," she said. "Everybody was affected by this."

Pastor Gene McIntosh of the Greensburg First United Methodist Church was reported safe with his family after riding out the storm in the parsonage basement. Both the church and homes were severely damaged or destroyed.

Baer said United Methodist volunteer teams were on standby until they are allowed entry to the town.

"I think the volunteers may just have to hang it up for a while," she said. "They're not going to let us in there. (The city) is assessing which structures volunteers can be around to see if any are safe to have volunteers around."

She said that churches from throughout Kansas and the U.S. were calling her to ask how they can help. The conference was asking people to donate to the Kansas Area Disaster Fund and was encouraging churches to take up a special offering Sunday for recovery.

Baer said she was shocked by images of the destruction. She said they reminded her of the devastation on the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.

"Usually in a Kansas tornado or elsewhere, there's the path of destruction, and then on the left and right side there are people who can come help," she said. "Yet in a hurricane everyone is affected, and that's how this was.

"Everyone was affected," she said. "It included everyone and it took out everyone."

One local emergency official described the situation as "the most significant emergency the state of Kansas has faced in a long, long time."

The National Weather Service said the tornado's path was 1.4 miles long. The Kiowa County Hospital and two local schools were severely damaged or destroyed. National Guard troops were sent in to assist and a curfew was imposed from 8 p.m. Saturday to 8 a.m. Sunday.

"There's just not a lot left down there," said incident commander Terry David. "It's a mess."

City Administrator Steve Hewitt said 95 percent of the town was damaged or destroyed.

"It's a devastating sight," said Hewitt, whose home was among those destroyed. "How are we going to rebuild? We've got to do this right, and it's going to be a tough road ahead of us."

Hewitt said the town would need to rally itself for the recovery.

"We've got to come together as one," he said. "It's not going to be easy, but we can do it."

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Related Links:

Kansas-West Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church

Mennonite Disaster Service


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