And the Trees Were Terrified
Bill Long 11/11/07
A Visit to Greensburg, Kansas
A brisk southerly wind whipped through what was formerly the downtown of Greensburg, KS yesterday, and I decided to stop and look around at this devasted town. I am in KS for several days to do some consulting, and I couldn't help but take a few hours to return to an area where I spent six years to try to process the loss that was all around me.
You will recall that Greensburg was the KS town destroyed on the night of May 4-May 5, 2007 by the most powerful tornado yet recorded in America (winds in excess of 200 mph). Some of the initial images of the devastation are here. The tornado swooped in from the SW, touching down on the Western portion of this town of 1700 residents, the county seat of Kiowa county, and cut a swath of devastation that either completely destroyed or severely damaged more than 95% of homes and buildings, killing about a dozen people in the process. [An unusual interview with an old-timer who experienced the storm is in the next essay.]
When I lived in KS in the early-mid 1990s, I made up a kind of joke about Greensburg as well as a few other small KS towns. You see, small towns in rural America often try to advertise something unusual or unique about themselves in order to attract visitors. Sometimes the thing advertised is just the lengthened shadow of a rather strange individual, but often the attraction is a natural or human-made phenomenon. Kansas has its share of these latter attractions, from the "Dalton Gang hideout" in Meade, to Dorothy's house in Liberal to the yellow brick road in Sedan (Hm...Liberal and Sedan are about 300 miles apart). But in the mid-1990s the two attractions that most allured me were the largest ball of twine in Cawker City and the largest hand-dug well in Greensburg. I visited the former one day and, after reading a plaque commemorating enterprise in America, mused on what life must have been like for one putting the ball together. Then, after visiting the well in Greensburg, I wondered if KS would have been better served by rolling the largest ball of twine into the largest hand-dug well and getting rid of two KS tourist attractions in one fell swoop....
Returning to Greensburg, Nov. 2007
So I drove along the 54 Highway from the West, and pulled into a convenience store where the town once was. I bought some junior mints and a drink, and the man behind the counter profusely thanked me for spending what turned out to be $2.34 at his store. Where the town's one stoplight had been (the corner of the state highway and Main St.) was a four-way stop, with a small painted sign saying "Main Street." Off to the left were three quonset-type tents, one of which said "Emergency" on it; the others were unlabeled. With this introduction, I turned right (South) on Main Street, and headed over to the one seemingly undamaged building in town, the three story brick and stone court house, and I parked in front of some FEMA and county trailers. I could see no persons at all on this Saturday afternoon, even though a few cars passed by on the state highway to the North. I first noticed the devastation, then the incongruities, and then the trees. Let me tell you briefly about each.
Though very few buildings withstood the storm (the two story Centera bank building on Main and Florida still stood, though the roof was damaged; the one story brick AT & T buildings stood; a few homes on the East end of town survived), the picture of loss in November looked very different than in May. All the debris has been cleaned up; leaning structures have been taken down; the wide and long basements of some of the downtown buildings are now completely empty. One acquaintance mentioned that the building he now missed most was a hardware store on the West side of Main Street, which had sculpted rabbits as finials on the upper facade of the building. I have since learned that the eerie silence doesn't mean that "nothing" is happening; indeed, plans are now in the works to rebuild about 120 of the nearly 500 homes lost to the storm. But once you stand and look in every direction from Main Street and realize that nothing functional is there today, it dawns on you afresh that many of the (former) townspeople must feel as empty as the hollowed out foundations along Main Street. Indeed, a few twisted steel girders bear silent witness to nature's power to twist human lives, too.
As the unusual cross of steel that remained after the destruction of 9/11 showed, there are often incongruities with destruction--things that survive that had no reason survive. For example, one of the first things I couldn't help noticing in Greensburg was that the wooden gazebo on the NW corner of the courthouse lawn survived intact. I read the inscription in a small plaque--it was erected by the "Beautification Committee" in 2000. I wondered for a fleeing moment whether that committee existed today.
Then there was the small wooden "Frosty the snowman" in front of what was formerly a homestead on either Florida or Wisconsin Street. The friendly visage and puckish grin on the snowman's face both invited my own smile but made me catch myself as I smiled at the same time. Then there was, in the midst of the destruction, a small single-trailer church--Peace Lutheran Church. I wondered whether the name of the Church signified something that was a reality, a longing, or something that just used to be for the people of the town.
But the thing that struck me most poignantly on my Saturday visit were the trees. Immediately in the aftermath of the tornado, pictures show nearly naked trees, most of them "topped" by the storm, but very few of them with any substantial leaves or branches. Now things are different, but they are different in a singular way. The tree most prevalent in Greensburg seems to be the Chinese Elm, and now the branches, instead of lying limply aside the trunk or cautiously stretching out from it, are splayed out as if in terror. The subbranches are also stretched out; the leaves, which still haven't fallen, cling to the ends of these extended smaller arms. It looked to me as if the trees were stretching their arms in some kind of horror, as if they not only had witnessed and felt a most horrible thing but that they were the only living things left to "tell about it." Hundreds of these truncated trees exist in town; certainly they will be "trimmed" as the town begins to grow up again, but for now their outstretched arms and branches bespeak a silent and continuing witness to the incredible storm of May 4-May 5, 2007.
While walking around in town, I did meet one person--and that most unusual "interview" is described in the next essay.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long