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First home being rebuilt in Greensburg

Couple gets new home after devastating May 4 tornado.

BY HEATHER MOYER | GREENSBURG, Kan. | August 25, 2007

John and Elsie Unruh wish they could bring everyone out to their property in Greensburg to see the work taking place.

"You can't believe it," said John Unruh, a longtime Greensburg resident. "These people are coming here on their vacations to do this."

He was speaking about the volunteer teams from Friends Disaster Service who have been rebuilding his home after a devastating May 4 tornado leveled the house along with 95 percent of the rural Kansas town. The twister left a path of destruction 22 miles long.

The Unruh home was the first in Greensburg being rebuilt.

Volunteers started on the Unruh home in late July and expect it to be done in September. The home will be 1,600 square feet with a two car garage. Both John Unruh and Friends staffers agree that not only was the speed of the rebuild amazing, but also how the couple and the organization found each other.

Dan Benke, assistant director of the Texas area region of Friends Disaster Service, was in Greensburg with other Friends teams helping clean up after the tornado. One night he and some volunteers went to a diner in nearby Haviland - the same night John and Elsie Unruh decided to do the same thing.

"We heard John and Elsie talking about how they'd get their home rebuilt, so we went over and introduced ourselves," Benke said.

John Unruh said he and his wife had noticed Benke's Friends Disaster Service shirt while there.

"They kept looking at us," Unruh said. "Then they came over and visited with us and asked how they could help. I said we'd already cleaned up the property. So he said, 'How about the rebuild?'"

Unruh said he was thrilled, especially considering the long waiting list that local contractors had given them. The Friends team started on the rebuild a few days after that fateful conversation.

As the first home being rebuilt in Greensburg, Benke said he can tell it's a sign of hope not just for the Unruhs, but for the entire community.

"People are watching it for sure," he said. "They drive by real slow. Sometimes they stop and come talk to us. When we were first out there, people couldn't understand how we could be doing all this for no charge. We tell everyone that it's our calling.

"It's very important to do this because it's the church and religious groups like us that really help rebuild the community," Benke said.

Bill Edwards, tri-state coordinator for Friends Disaster Service, agreed with Benke and said volunteer teams who travel to Greensburg from across the U.S. feel the same.

"This is important because the government isn't going to take care of everyone," said Edwards, whose area covers Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. "Somebody's got to step in and help. There are not enough contractors in the world to take care of all the disasters. It's important to us because it's our calling from God. This is what we're supposed to be doing and that's why we do it."

Edwards spent the past week leading a team of volunteers from North Carolina during his fourth or fifth trip - "I'm not sure, I've lost track now," he said - to Greensburg. He said the rebuild work is just as joyful as getting to know the Unruhs.

John Unruh likes to walk through the house to chat and see how the work is progressing. His wife frequently cooks for the volunteers or stops by to talk and give them snacks.

"She feeds us like there's no tomorrow. She sure can cook," Edwards said with a laugh. "They're real good people, real down to earth. We like them."

For the Unruhs, their happiness increases with each part of the house that is completed. They survived a terrifying night when the tornado came through, having survived by running into their basement and diving under a mattress. When the tornado was gone, all the exits from the basement were blocked by debris and the house above them was gone. John Unruh said it rained hard on them in the basement as they waited for someone to come find them.

After being rescued, they finally saw what had happened to the rest of the town. Later that weekend, they found a place to rent and got what they could from their house.

"There was very, very little salvaged from the house," John Unruh said.

He said the loss of their valuables affected his wife more than him. She was especially upset at the loss of a china set he had gotten for her on their wedding day.

"She found a few spoons, a few forks and some dishes. Most were chipped or cracked," he said. "I made sure to go buy her a new set of china like I did 19 years ago when we got married."

He said they were grateful to Friends Disaster Service.

"I'm going to make them a real good donation when we're done, they saved us so much," he said.

When the Unruh home is completed, the teams will rebuild other homes in Greensburg. Benke said they were looking for more volunteers for the rebuilding effort, which was being coordinated with the South Central Kansas Tornado Recovery Organization. Anyone was welcome to volunteer regardless of their beliefs, he said.

"It works out great. We've had Catholic groups from Iowa come help and we've worked with Mennonites and Quakers and Baptists. It works out great because all the doctrine is put aside and you just help," he said.

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