Town hopes to chase holiday blues

Weekend events designed to brighten lives of Greensburg residents whose Kansas town was flattened by deadly tornado.

BY NANCY HOGLAND | GREENSBURG, Kan. | November 29, 2007

Center of Greensburg after it was hit by tornado with 200 mph winds.
Credit: FEMA

The holidays are coming on the heels of the six-month anniversary of the Greensburg tornado, and for some of the town's residents, it's almost more than they can bear.

That's why organizers with the South Central Kansas Tornado Recovery Organization (SCKTRO) decided to hold a Christmas get-together this weekend for the community.

"We're concerned about them," said chairman Kathleen Blair. "They're getting very discouraged and frustrated. Some are very angry that things are not progressing as quickly as they'd like.

"This is really a hard time for everyone," she added. "We're hoping to give them a little happiness and take their minds off things, at least for a little while."

On May 4, an EF-5 tornado swept through the farm town, killing 10 people and destroying about 90 percent of all residential and commercial buildings. Two other people outside Greensburg were also killed by the storm.

Blair, who also serves as vice president of Greensburg's Ministerial Alliance, said the future appears bleak for many. A high percentage of residents had dropped homeowner's insurance because their homes were paid for. Many more were severely under-insured. A few others, who had mortgages on their homes but weren't required by their lenders to obtain insurance, didn't have any coverage.

As a result, a majority of the rural community will be riding out the winter in small trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and then relying on volunteers to help rebuild their homes as weather allows.

"Only one stick-built house has been rebuilt," Blair said. "The rest of the people who are back in permanent homes are there because they bought modular houses. And of course, most people don't have any of their Christmas decorations left.

"That may sound frivolous," she noted, "but it's hard, especially when you have children and no money to replace anything."

Because the tornado also blew away many of the jobs, the area, which formerly had bordered on mid- to low-income, could now be classified as low- to no-income, Blair said. While a handful of businesses are finally up and running, many more either left the area for good or are still in the rebuilding process, she said.

"Coping with the holidays can be hard when everything is going well," Blair said. "Now multiply that with all the things going wrong and you can understand why everyone is so glum."

Knowing that, and desiring to replace some of the sadness with joy, the town of Fairview, Kan., after hearing about the planned Christmas gathering, sent 250 Christmas trees to be distributed to Greensburg residents. An ornament drive netted cases of glittery decorations. Front door wreaths, lights, garland and icicles have also been coming in by the box-load. Those items will be distributed at Saturday's event.

Christmas music perhaps a little caroling and lots of hot chocolate and cookies provided by The Salvation Army, also will be offered to boost spirits. And the jolly old elf himself (a.k.a. Joe Blair) will be there to hand out five huge sacks full of donated toys and books to children.

On Sunday evening, the Greensburg Rotary Club will hold its annual lighted Christmas parade and another social - complete with hot cider and more fellowship time - will follow.

"This is something we've been holding for seven or eight years now," said Matt Deighton, one of the organizers. "I felt it needed to continue and go right down Main Street, as it has in the past, even through there are no buildings there now.

"We need to show the community that we're going to keep moving forward that we're not going to let this stop us," he said.

Blair said organizers for both events are hoping for a huge turnout.

"We really want to bring some happiness back to our townspeople," Blair said.

She added that the recent completion of the "volunteer village" - dormitory-style trailers complete with bathroom facilities along with a large dining hall, all built on land donated by the Faith Tabernacle Church, should also put a smile on residents' faces.

"That means we should be able to attract more long-term volunteer groups who will help us rebuild," Blair said. "As soon as the holidays are over, we hope to get to work full swing. We have lots of indoor projects - preparations for building - and then on days where the weather allows, we can start putting houses up."

Numerous faith-based organizations, including Mennonite Disaster Service, Samaritan's Purse and American Baptist Church USA, have already donated large sums of money and sent volunteers to assist with cleanup and restoration. College students from nearby Fort Hays State University have also spent numerous hours helping out.

Now that Greensburg can provide adequate housing and dining facilities for volunteers, Blair said she was hopeful they will return and that more will come and join in.

"It's been a long, hard six months for our residents," she said. "We're hoping that the next six months brings a brighter future."

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