In most spots it’s difficult to tell where the debris from one home stops and the next begins. GateHouse Media News Service writer Emily Arkin spent the day Monday walking through the destroyed town of Greensburg, Kansas, talking to residents as they dug through what remained of their homes and businesses.
As residents returned to town for the first time Monday, they found a scene more alarming than the sirens that sounded Friday night alerting them to the powerful tornado that leveled Greensburg.
A heavily damaged Kiowa County Courthouse on the south end of town and a
concrete silo to the north serve as two of the largest remaining landmarks
for the town’s 1,400 residents after the F-5 tornado with estimated winds of
205 mph swept a mile-wide path through the town.
In place of street signs, spray paint on the pavement directs drivers and
pedestrians. Pummeled vehicles peek out from the rubble and scattered
remains of homes. Trees stripped of their leaves and broken like twigs line
block after block.
In most spots it’s difficult to tell where the debris from one home stops
and the next begins.
As Susan Staats sifted through photos dug from the remains of her Main
Street house, she said, “It’s so overwhelming. You don’t even know where to
“You have people coming by to offer help, but you don’t know where to begin,
so you don’t know how they can help.”
She and her family dug through the rubble Monday, the first time
people not associated with search and rescue efforts were allowed in
Greensburg since the town was evacuated Friday. A young man was able to retrieve items from the family’s destroyed vehicles. And despite warnings against entering the
home, sitting at least 15 feet from the basement it once topped, Staats’
husband made his way into the wreckage.
Rhonda Hammond didn’t have the option to enter her new home on South Walnut.
Instead, she dug through shards of the wood home, finding the occasional
“I’m finding more than I thought I would,” she said, showing off several
bracelets she had unearthed. “It’s sad. It’s like the stuff that made it you
don’t want, and the stuff you do want is destroyed.”
Hammond also had found several rings buried in her muddy yard.
“But, you know, I can’t go over every inch of the yard,” she said, knowing
that she will eventually have to let many of her belongings go.
The one thing Hammond desperately wanted to locate one way or the other was
her dog Toby. Sadly, she found the pet dead in the debris.
The last time George and Kay Towner of East Wisconsin Avenue saw their home
it was still standing. But that was Friday night.
“I’m just hoping it’s still standing,” George Towner said, noting that it
was in bad shape at the time.
The couple had already located their van, though. Once parked in front of the
town’s senior center, where they took cover during the tornado, it perched
up top the toppled block walls of the building afterward.
In all of the chaos, residents of the town were finding support.
Owners of one business, one of only three remaining, have opened
their building to folks who have recovered their belongings but have nowhere to store the items.
The Staats family has found temporary housing in nearby Pratt through a local contractor
with an open rental.
And an overwhelmed Hammond has a sister helping her drudge through her
belongings to decide what is worth saving.
At the same time, residents are trying to figure out how to balance their
grief and their need to move forward.
Staats, a teacher in town, said she knows a school custodian and a friend
are among the 10 who died in the tornado.
“It’s hard. You want to be there for (the families), but you need to be
here,” she said, continuing her search for whatever her family could find.