KS responders plan tornado recovery

Unmet needs committee to be created.


Damage from the Greensburg tornado.
Credit: Bill Adams/CRWRC

The Greensburg United Methodist Church parsonage was demolished by tornado.
Credit: Rev. Kendal Utt

Members of the Kansas chapter of Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster met Tuesday to coordinate a response to a tornado in Greensburg which leveled the town and killed 10 people.

"We talked about some of the issues and getting resources where they're needed," said Dee Smith, chairman of KSVOAD. "We had a good 50 people at the meeting, a lot of the VOAD member agencies, a lot of the local churches and a lot of regional groups."

Smith said the local ministerial alliance and the faith-based community will form an unmet needs committee to help the community recover from the tornado which destroyed 95 percent of the rural town. The group agreed to meet again next week.

"Our focus is to strengthen that local committee - cooperation and collaboration," Smith said.

Adventist Community Services and The Salvation Army, both KSVOAD members, were setting up a warehouse to manage donations coming into the area.

Authorities have only allowed residents with proper identification back into the town to sift through what little remains of their homes. No volunteer work teams have been allowed into the community located about 110 miles from Wichita.

Responders said they were concerned about the economic impact on both the business community and on the town's 1,600 residents as they work with insurance companies to rebuild or repair their homes. All of the businesses in the downtown area were wiped out by the Friday night twister.

"I think the economic impact it's going to have on the entire town is really overwhelming since so much of the town is gone," Smith said. "They've lost the infrastructure. It's hard for the city when all the city workers have lost their homes, too."

National disaster response agencies have sent emergency funding as well as assessment teams to support local clergy and the community. Among those responding were the United Methodist Committee on Relief, Lutheran Disaster Response, the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC), Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA), Church World Service, Mennonite Disaster Service and Week of Compassion.

Greensburg is the county seat of Kiowa County. The county has received a federal disaster declaration, which will free up federal funds for disaster recovery. President Bush was scheduled to visit the town Wednesday.

Responding organizations encouraged monetary donations to help the recovery process. They also urged people not to show up to help as an unaffiliated volunteer.

Bill Adams, CRWRC disaster response services director, said CRWRC would help however it can when the unmet needs committee gets under way. He said long-term support will be crucial in getting residents fully recovered.

"Livelihoods and everything here are pretty much a mess right now," Adams said. "Many people from neighboring counties and states want to help, and that's some hope for the local pastors."

He said CRWRC needs assessment teams and that construction teams would be available once the recovery reaches that point. Adams said he was pleased that many of the responding organizations were focusing on spiritual care.

Smith, divisional disaster director for The Salvation Army in Kansas and Missouri, said despite the massive destruction, residents remained optimistic.

"The community spirit of 'We will survive' and 'We're going to come back' - it's phenomenal," she said. "The spirit is just wonderful."

Adams added that residents were thankful to have survived the EF5 tornado with its winds estimated at more than 200 miles per hour.

"Everything is just completely gone," he said. "In one area of town, the force of the wind must have been horrific because nothing is standing. We talked to a lot of people today. They're survivors who are thankful to be alive and thankful that God brought them through this."

Three members of the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance National Response Team were in the Greensburg area. Team member Don Hampton said they did counseling work with a Kiowa County Mental Health unit and attended the KSVOAD meeting to plan PDA's long-term involvement.

Mennonite Disaster Service cleanup teams were on standby waiting to enter Greensburg, but some have been busy in rural areas also hit by the tornado northeast of Greensburg, including Stafford County where one of two additional fatalities were reported in the state from the storm system.

"Those crews are out repairing, putting up tarps and boards over windows," said MDS director Kevin King. "We're not doing too much repair and recovery work yet because we have to wail until insurance adjusters get there."

King said a coordinator for the response would soon be named. In the meantime, local MDS volunteer coordinator Melvin Miller was handling the teams and the phone calls from others wanting to help.

"My phone's been ringing from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily," said Miller, who lives in nearby Arlington.

Miller said because Greensburg was closed to outsiders, he was advising MDS teams and other volunteers to be patient. For now, those teams working in the more rural areas of Stafford County were picking up debris in farm fields and "those types of things."

Miller said he hoped teams wanting to help would remain interested for a long time.

"We'll have work for years, I'm sure," he said.

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