Greensburg looks toward rebuilding

Kansas town destroyed by tornado hopes to start rebuilding in next few months.


Mennonite Disaster Service volunteers clean up tornado debris in Greensburg.
Credit: Mennonite Disaster Service

Mennonite Disaster Service volunteers clean up a Greensburg home leveled by a tornado on May 4.
Credit: Mennonite Disaster Service

As the debris cleanup winds down after the devastating May 4 tornado in Greensburg, disaster responders hope volunteers will come back when the rebuilding starts later this summer.

"We're still getting a lot of calls offering help, but right now we're between the cleanup and the building for the most part," said the Rev. Kathleen Blair, chairman of the South Central Kansas Tornado Recovery Organization. "We're trying to convince them to call us back in late August and September."

Thousands of volunteers poured into Greensburg after the EF-5 tornado destroyed 95 percent of the small farming town, leaving 10 people dead. The twister tore a 22-mile path of destruction across five counties.

Now, a coalition of disaster response organizations and local churches have banded together into the South Central Kansas long-term recovery committee to serve affected residents in Comanche, Kiowa, Pratt, Edwards and Stafford counties.

Blair said four caseworkers were working through or supported by the United Methodist Committee on Relief, Lutheran Disaster Response and the American Red Cross. She said several more may be needed as the full extent of the work ahead becomes clear.

Now that many of the destroyed homes have been cleared, people are seeing just how big the task is ahead of them, she said.

"The adrenaline is wearing off," Blair said. "They are starting to see that it's going to take a lot more time and effort than they thought. They're getting tired and we're starting to see a lot more emotion."

Blair, pastor at Wellsford Community Church, a small country church east of Haviland, stepped up to chair the recovery committee during a Kiowa County ministerial alliance meeting.

Blair said she took the position because, with 10 churches destroyed in Greensburg, the religious leaders there had enough work to do in their congregations without having to head up recovery for the entire town. Blair's church was not damaged in the storm.

She said the affected pastors were holding strong despite the challenging situation.

One Greensburg church made counseling available for those coping with the emotions from the tragedy. The Salvation Army has also deployed counseling teams.

Overwhelming support from across the nation has helped bolster community spirits as volunteers and donations poured in during the past two months. The Rev. Kelly Gindlesberger, pastor of First Christian Church in nearby Kinsley, said he was shocked at just how much the world seemed to care.

"Especially in the emergency response phase - that was pretty amazing," said Gindlesberger, who heads up the volunteer effort for the recovery committee. "Even the night of the storm, before midnight there were people showing up. All kinds of faith-based organizations were there and more. And then when the cleanup phase started - that's happened so fast. We're now not yet two months out and it's well over 85 percent done."

The quick pace of cleanup surprised Deborah Factor, too, as did the generosity of several churches from beyond the Greensburg area. Factor heads Youth For Christ (YFC), a non-profit in Greensburg for junior and senior high school students.

An Indiana organization donated a large steel building and four churches are helping YFC build it to replace its building which was leveled in the tornado.

In the meantime, other families and organizations around the area have let YFC use their spaces to host weekly YFC nights for the youngsters. Other churches have donated money to YFC to sponsor Greensburg youngsters on the organization's yearly summer camp in Colorado. That support is helping give young people a place to go during the recovery, said Factor, who added that the youngsters were coping as best they could.

"They were all very powerfully affected by this," she said. "Most lost their homes. Everybody's affected, though. Even if you didn't lose your house, you lost your town and your school and everywhere you hung out. Everybody is dealing with that loss."

Factor and her husband have kept the YFC meetings and events going so kids have a place to be kids and talk about everything.

"We've discussed it at our meetings some and a little one on one. We've given out pamphlets on what they should expect to feel to let them know their feelings are normal," Factor said. "We're trying to define it for them so they don't think they're weird for feeling one way."

Factor, a Greensburg resident, said she was coping with the loss just as much as the youngsters.

"We've had a lot of kids crying on our shoulders and I've cried with a few of them, too," she said.

She said groups of students have helped do debris cleanup.

Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) continues to do some heavy debris cleanup including removal of foundations - around Kiowa County and the surrounding rural counties, said Marvin Penner, the group's volunteer coordinator for Greensburg.

More than 2,500 MDS volunteers have helped with debris cleanup and removal at more than 200 homes in Greensburg, he reported. Volunteers were trickling in to help with the big specialized jobs that remain, he said.

Kevin Cox, head of Hope Crisis Response Network, said his volunteer operations were temporarily suspended in Greensburg. The organization was working on a 40-volunteer housing site and temporary warehouses for construction materials once rebuilding begins.

"The town is almost completely gone - there's no warehousing available for materials," Cox said. "The closest place to get materials is 110 miles away in Wichita, so we have to bring in warehousing to provide for our materials."

He estimated his agency brought in 120 volunteers for the cleanup and said churches were calling to schedule rebuild groups.

"It's awesome to see this response," he said.

Cox added that the cooperation among responding organizations has been impressive and helpful.

When AmeriCares in Connecticut donated five temporary warehousing huts that were in Salt Lake City, for example, a call to the Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS) there resulted in LDS paying to ship the warehouses to Greensburg, he said.

"What a great chance to show the collaboration between the many faiths," Cox said.

Gindlesberger said securing volunteer housing was a major goal for the recovery committee before rebuilding begins. He said organizations on the recovery committee will also share their volunteer housing sites.

"We'll also be matching the volunteers with the work and handling the hospitality," Gindlesberger said.

While Blair and Gindlesberger encouraged people to volunteer later this year, they also urged people to financially support the work of the recovery committee in the five affected counties.

Greensburg residents were bolstered two weeks ago by one special volunteer cleanup group from Hallam, Neb. The volunteers were no stranger to tornado recovery - having had to rebuild their entire small town after a similar devastating tornado in 2004.

"You could tell who they were by their T-shirts," Blair said. "The shirts had 'Hallam' and had the date of their tornado on it. On the front was a picture of a destroyed building and on the back was a picture of the rebuilt building. Above that it said, 'We rebuilt, you can too.'"

Blair said the Hallam team cleaned up several homes after driving six hours that morning to Greensburg. The team then drove home that night. They brought with them cards and letters of support from other Hallam residents, which Blair said she shared with Greensburg residents at a community church service the next morning.

"They had a good story to share and said we shouldn't get discouraged," Blair said. "It was encouraging just to see them."

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Related Links:

Mennonite Disaster Service

Hope Crisis Response Network

Youth For Christ


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