Sunday, June 24, 2007

Fears That Nature Performed a Coup de Grâce on Kansas Town

Published: June 24, 2007


It is morning in Greensburg, population uncertain. The sun rises from the flat-line horizon to cast light upon the tidy curbside piles of debris that had been homes, the untidy piles of brick that had been downtown, the denuded trees that now look like pale hands reaching skyward.

In the context of Kansas, the violent thunderstorm that had rolled through overnight was no more than a street-cleaning; a cosmic throat-clearing, really. Now, on the last day of spring and seven weeks after the tornado, another morning has come to say it was not a dream, your entire town really is gone.

Yes, a tornado nearly two miles wide really did mow through here one night last month. It really did kill 10 of the 1,450 residents. It really did destroy just about every house, business and church, as though determined to erase Greensburg, home of the World’s Largest Hand-Dug Well, from memory. And yes, all this in about the time it takes for a cup of coffee to cool.

The adrenaline rush that immediately followed the disaster, the gumption that temporarily displaced the grief, has slowed with the passing time and the rising heat. The extraordinary has become mundane, so much so that the incessant broadcasts of disaster updates — 1610 on your AM dial — serve as a kind of Muzak of catastrophe.

Residents have until July 15 to retrieve their pets at the former Countryside Vet Clinic ... FEMA is hiring for local positions ... Kansas All Hazards Behavioral Health is offering crisis counseling ... Leave room for emergency and military vehicles when parking ...

In Davis Park, where 205-mile-an-hour winds left the ball field’s scoreboard bowing as if in deference, young AmeriCorps volunteers mill about their encampment. As they clean out the destroyed homes — saving photo albums and tossing moldy clothes with clinical detachment — they hear the doubts that residents harbor about Greensburg’s future.

Sabrina Hilton, 24, a suntanned and mosquito-bitten AmeriCorps volunteer from St. Louis, says that many people just want their homes “ ’dozed” so that they can move on. “A lot of older residents don’t see the value in building again,” she says. “They can’t fathom putting the energy into it.”

At park’s edge, under a red and white tent left over from a religious Mother’s Day service more than a month ago, people from all walks sign up to volunteer their services. An AmeriCorps volunteer assigns them to lots that need clearing and offers them gloves and rakes.

Here comes Daniel Miller, 65, a straw-hatted carpenter from Arkansas who has been here a month. His team of Mennonite volunteers is nearly finished clearing a lot on West Florida Avenue and is looking for its next assignment. He say he tries not to focus on the ruined family belongings at his feet; if he did, he could not work.

And here come two white-haired bikers from New Mexico, both 64, who call themselves Totem-Jane and Ladders. Rolling past the destruction along Kansas Avenue, they had decided there was no choice but to stop, accept two rakes and spend a few hours on a lot on South Bay Street.

“We thought they could use a little help,” Totem-Jane says.

It is afternoon in Greensburg, and the sun is high and hot. Jon Clark, 58, catches his breath in front of what had been his printing shop on Main Street. The night of the tornado, Mr. Clark, a Vietnam War veteran, and his father, Harold, a World War II veteran, hunkered down in the basement of their home, waiting for this battle of nature to subside.

When some semblance of calm came, the son poked his head out.

The father asked: Is the house gone?

The son answered: Dad, I think everything is gone. Including the house.

Jon Clark, weathered, lanky, points out what was where. This hole in the ground was Hunter Drug Store; you should have seen its classic soda fountain. This pile was the county museum, where the town’s relics were kept. And this collapsed building here was the Twilight Theatre, with its uncomfortable chairs and fabulous tin ceiling.

“This is the lobby here,” he says, standing in daylight, a few feet from the concession stand’s marquee. Pop, $1.50. Beef jerky, 75 cents.

Mr. Clark says he struggles with the knowledge that Greensburg, 110 miles west of Wichita, was in steady, aging decline, and that many of those displaced by the tornado are not coming back. “It’s a real thorny issue,” he says. “Was this storm a mercy killing?”

True, some government officials see a rare opportunity to build a town anew — to transform Greensburg into an environmental, economic model of modern rural life, a place that attracts rather than loses young people. Visions of a new, different downtown are already being considered.

But Mr. Clark says that as debris piles are carted away and the town is wiped clean of virtually all but its roads, his ache of loss intensifies. “At least I could recognize the rubble,” he says.

It is evening in Greensburg, and the little left standing casts long shadows. The volunteers return their rakes and the claws of demolition take their last few swipes, while strong breezes from the south blow through the deserted streets to create phantom movement.

A twirl of dust rises from rubble on Florida Avenue. An electric fan spins at curbside on Walnut. And at a broken, abandoned house on Lincoln, a screen door slams shut.