Politics & Policy

Blown Away?

Not quite. A tradition of midwestern resilience clings to the place where Greensburg used to be.

Russell Steen, a 48-year-old sales and delivery man for Taylor Printing, stood with his kids in the front yard of his house in Pratt, Kansas (pop. 6,500) last Friday night. “We were watching the lightning about 9:30, quarter to ten,” he told me. “It was one of those Kansas lightning storms that you tell people in L.A. about and they just don’t believe you. The whole sky was filled with it. It was amazing.” Steen doesn’t have cable. He doesn’t even have broadcast TV. Maybe he doesn’t need it. “I mean, that storm was something to see.” Eventually, he went inside, turned out the lights and went to sleep.

About midnight, the phone rang. It was Doug Enick, the pastor at Trinity Evangelical Church. There was an emergency in Greensburg, the tiny (pop. 1,500) county seat of neighboring Kiowa County, some 30 miles west on US 54. There had been a tornado and they needed somebody to go over with the church bus and bring some people out. “So I got up and went,” Steen said. At about 2 in the morning, he pulled into Greensburg. At least, where Greensburg was supposed to be. “I was shocked,” Steen told me when I reached him by phone nearly two days later. “I’m still shocked.”

The storm that Steen had watched with his children from his front yard in Pratt had taken the form of an F-5 tornado in Greensburg. The huge, slow-moving twister with winds reaching 200 mph rolled over Greensburg and in a matter of minutes, wiped the town from the face of the earth. Literally. “There was nothing,” Steen said. “I can’t describe it. I read about it. The papers send out these reporters, but they didn’t know Greensburg. All they could see was the devastation. But for me, Greensburg was a real town, a real place, with buildings and people and all that. I had just walked down Main Street, joking with people and saying ‘hello.’ I never dreamed the town would just vanish. It was just unreal. It was dark, kind of warm, there were no lights. No buildings. But you could see the horizon. And here’s a really strange thing. The streets were already cleared. You could drive an ambulance down the street. I don’t know how they did that. That was a miracle.”

Everything Happened at Once

If you look for Greensburg on a map, you’ll find it 109 miles west of Wichita and about 30 miles north of the Oklahoma line. That part of south-central Kansas isn’t quite the flat, dry, western part easterners think of when they think of Kansas, if they do — but it’s close. I passed through there a little more than a year ago, following the arc of highway 54, and all I really remember is the sign for the World’s Largest Hand-Dug Well — 109-feet deep and 32 feet in diameter, finished in 1888. To me, it was another pretty village on the unguarded, open plains.

While Steen was watching the lightning, the people in Greensburg were running for cover. They had been given 20 minutes — a reasonably generous warning, and few residents were yet lost in sleep. They called each other and did what they could. To Mother Nature, the whole midwest is an easy target; on April 21, 2001, an F-4 tornado had paid a visit to Hoisington, a farming community north of Pratt, leaving the place in pieces. I’ve seen twisters fingering down from the dark sky a time or two myself. There’s a place and a season for tornados and Kansans know they’re in the middle of both: They know that when the heavens open out there, anything can happen. On Friday night in Greensburg, everything happened all at once, and by the time the tornado had passed, the town had blown away, everyone was homeless, and eight people were dead and stretched out in a makeshift morgue in one of the few remaining buildings — the town bar. Judging by the images on TV and the Internet, there was little to distinguish the rubble that had once been Greensburg from the town’s other heaven-sent souvenir, a 1,000-pound meteorite — if the sky hadn’t just reclaimed it.

By the next day, U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts and the state’s two Republican congressmen, Jerry Moran and Todd Tiahrt, were on the ground. The media were, too; the Wichita Eagle’s reporters started a blog to keep up with events. By lunchtime Saturday, the story was everywhere. I saw my first video coverage on French television. By Sunday morning President Bush was releasing federal emergency aid to the region. The state’s governor, Kathleen Sebelius, arrived Sunday evening to take a look around and offer consolation to the town’s residents, many of whom were housed ten miles from where Greensburg had been, in the gym of the high school in little town called Haviland. The refugees nearly doubled the town’s population, which is normally around 600. By the time you read this Monday morning, Sen. Sam Brownback will be in the area, no doubt echoing what Bush had told reporters in Washington for whom the tornado in Greensburg was as remote as one of those planet-sized storms on the surface of Jupiter: “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.”

Bush wasn’t just spouting platitudes about self-reliance. Not long ago, while I was working on my book about the midwest, I met a woman in her 80s in McCook, Nebraska, who told me about how she and her family had escaped the Republican River flood of 1935. That was the flood that hit in the middle of the Dust Bowl, dropped ten years’ worth of water in a few hours, and turned the nearly dry riverbed into a sea nearly four miles wide. She and her mother and father had survived by running to a nearby farm situated on the only hill around. When the water reached the farmhouse, they ran for the barn. When it reached the barn, they ran for the machine shed. When it reached the machine shed, the climbed into the rafters. They won by inches. When they finally climbed down, they were like the people in Greensburg: Alone, with nothing, on a big, flat, hostile plain. I asked her what the government did to help them out. She looked at me like I was nuts. “The government? We never even thought of that. We just went back to work.”

“Strength and Resolve”

The minority leader of the Kansas house is Dennis McKinney, a much-admired conservative Democrat who represents the heavily Republican constituency that includes Greensburg. Until 9:45 last Friday night, McKinney had a house in town, and when the storm hit, he had been in it. I asked him about the miracle of the cleared roads. “We got help,” he told me over an intermittent cell connection. “We live in an area where most of the towns are small, but most of them have volunteer EMT units and volunteer firefighters. After the storm, within minutes, we had several fire companies here, and then more came. We had a huge response from the surrounding communities — all well-trained volunteers. And we have a lot of pick-ups! One of the things about living out here is we all have four-wheel-drive pickups. So for example a few of us cleared my road right away — cut up a tree that was across the road, hooked a chain to it and dragged it away with the pick-up. We just helped each other.” On Main Street and out on the highway, the people who only minutes earlier had been residents of a small Kansas town had been joined by others and together they all spent the whole night hard at work on a dark and unsheltered plain.

One of the remarkable stories to emerge from the storm coverage is the one about McKinney receiving a call a little while after the tornado warnings were issued. It was from a young man who lived next door. He explained to McKinney that he was too far away and didn’t think he could make it back home in time to take care of his wife and baby. His house had no storm cellar, no place for them to go. Could he tell them they could seek refuge in McKinney’s basement? McKinney said of course. He sent his 14-year-old daughter, Lindy, down to the basement and went out to wait for the woman and the baby.

But it was too late. As his house started exploding around them, McKinney turned back toward the basement stairs. Debris showered down on him; he lost his flashlight. His daughter helped him into a bath in the basement, and he threw his body over hers to protect her. As the house disintegrated above them, Lindy McKinney suggested they pray for the mother and child next door. “And that’s what we did,” McKinney told me. “My daughter — she didn’t pray for us. She didn’t pray for herself. She prayed for the people next door.” The significance was still settling on McKinney. His voice suddenly hoarse, he said, “As a father, I don’t think I’ve ever been so proud.”

When the wind subsided, McKinney climbed out through the wreckage of his home into the darkness and found the house next door had vanished, leaving only a thick carpet of debris. Suddenly, he heard the sound of a woman’s voice crying for help. Working with another neighbor, the two men pulled the mother and baby out. Their only injuries: a few scratches.

When McKinney told his political rival and personal friend, former Kansas House speaker Doug Mays about it the next day, Mays told me McKinney had called it “a miracle” and Mays agreed. “Dennis said that after emerging from the rubble of what once was their home, and seeing every thing including their vehicles gone, one might expect to feel absolutely despondent. Instead, he was overwhelmed with joy at the knowledge that he and his daughter were alive.”

“Dennis McKinney and his daughter, Lindy, demonstrates the strength and resolve that typifies Kansas,” Mays told me in an e-mail. “Knowing their lives might end in seconds, what could have been their very last prayers were given for their neighbors. That is why Greensburg will rebuild.”

Mays’s sentiments were shared by almost everyone I talked to, including Kansans from the densely packed part of the state. “Kansas citizens have a history of hard work and self-reliance,” former Shawnee state representative Mary Pilcher Cook wrote to me. “With help and encouragement from other Kansans, they’ll rebuild their community.”

I could have collected dozens of testimonials to that “pioneer spirit” Bush mentioned. But Mays added an apt little postscript that seemed to apply just as well: “Kansans,” he said, “believe in miracles.”

”How It Works Here”

There may be no churches in Greensburg at the moment, but, as McKinney told me, “We do have a very strong spiritual base here.” That’s good, because rebuilding Greensburg will take a miracle. But so did building it in the first place. Take I-70 west from Baltimore until you hit the high, flat end of Kansas, look out the window and imagine growing a metropolis out there on that dry earth. Imagine sprouting schools, churches, libraries, homes, and parks out of nothing. Rebuilding Greensburg will be no different than building Greensburg had been — except now there’ll be senators and governors and aid and a highway and a whole lot of much better equipment. Steen told me that he thinks they’ll have to completely level it and start all over. Like many small prairie villages, Greensburg was past its prime, anyway. “Will it be the same?” he asked. “No. How could it be?”

But others disagree. “Greensburg? Of course they’ll rebuild,” state senator Tim Huelskamp from nearby Fowler told me. “They just want to get in and do it.” Only hours after the town was flattened, Huelskamp said, people were already griping — not because the government wasn’t there with its porta-potties, but because they were there and in the way. Huelskamp said he was hearing from people who “just want to go in and start figuring out how to put their town back together,” only to be stymied by state officials. In fact, when I asked him what he thought would help most now, he told me, “Maybe getting the bureaucrats out of the way.”

It was frustrating some people, he said. “If you have an aunt in Greensburg and you’ve got 20 friends and neighbors ready to go in and help her, you don’t want to be told to wait. People call me and ask me for help, but there’s nothing I can do.”

I reached Sharon Watson, a public-affairs officer for the Kansas Emergency Management Office, last night on her cell as she was following the governor out of Greensburg and told her about the complaints. “It’s a very unique situation,” she explained. “It’s not like Katrina. The scale is smaller, but with Katrina, you still had something left. Here — it’s hard to comprehend, but here there is nothing. It’s a complete loss. So we have to make sure it’s safe.” What remains of structures is unstable. The town site has no water tower, so no drinking water; no power lines, so no electricity. Residents would be allowed to return Monday morning, she said. I asked her from what she saw and heard if they felt they could rebuild. “I just don’t know,” she said.

But over in Pratt, Jeff Taylor, a city commissioner, didn’t even think the question merited a pause. “Greensburg, they’re our neighbors,” he said, flatly. “We’ll do whatever it takes to help them rebuild. That’s how it works here.”

(In fact, only hours after Greensburg was hit, another batch of twisters struck nearby. Just north of St. John, some 40 miles northeast of Greensburg, in Stafford County, a tornado wiped out a farm. “There were a lot of men missing from church this morning,” Mitch Holmes, the local state representative told me. “Most of them were out helping their neighbor.”)

It all seemed slightly optimistic. So I asked McKinney about the future of Greensburg. “We have a lot of grieving to get through,” he said. “But as we get things straightened out, I think — I think people will see the opportunities here.” He was much more confident about his own future. “I had a contractor out to talk about building a new house on my old basement,” he said. “So I know what I’m doing.”

And why not? That basement’s magic, and besides, a man would have to be crazy to leave behind a place so full of miracles. So starting at 8 this morning, the citizens of Greensburg are being allowed to go back and visit their spot on the prairie.

If you want to pitch in

McKinney told me the Red Cross and the Salvation Army were on the scene and doing good work. So send in a pick-up truck, or the cash equivalent. Greensburg could use it.

 – Denis Boyles is author of the upcoming Superior, Nebraska: The Common Sense Values of America’s Heartland.

Denis BoylesDennis Boyles is a writer, editor, former university lecturer, and the author/editor of several books of poetry, travel, history, criticism, and practical advice, including Superior, Nebraska (2008), Design Poetics (1975), ...

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