Victims reflect, reconsider, rebuild after disaster changes life

05/09/08

GREENSBURG – This is a place where grown men stand on porches shouting to their neighbors that the rain will be good for the crops. This is a place where moms carry children on their shoulders so they can see above the crowd.

But on May 4, 2007, Greensburg was a place of destruction and devastation. It was a place where children clung to toilets hoping the pipes run deep enough in the ground to keep them from blowing away. A place where others sat in complete darkness for hours afraid to open their eyes and see what was left of their once sturdy homes.

“I couldn’t see. There were no lights,” said Amber Boyles of Greensburg, where 11 people were killed when an EF-5 tornado ripped through their tiny country town.

“There were people crying,” she said. “I didn’t know how many people had died.”

The destruction of the city left many of the town’s 1,500 residents homeless. Some chose to box up what was left of their lives and move on, to pack up their shattered picture frames, their soggy scrapbooks, their scattered memories and leave Greensburg. Others – some 700 – remained behind. For these residents, much of their next few months would involve asking many questions, praying for many answers, and in most cases, begging for miracles that would never come.

It is not that they’ve turned their back on Greensburg. Rather, it has left scars on the places in their hearts where a love for Greensburg used to rest.

They watched friends and loved ones die in a tornado that destroyed more than 95 percent of the town. They saw neighbors and relatives carried away on makeshift stretchers of wooden planks or doors and loaded into ambulances from Pratt and Dodge City, from towns they’ve stopped in for coffee or donuts on their way to somewhere else entirely.

But more horrifying than anything, said the people who lived through it, was the rain that followed – a dark, hazy, hard rain that seemed to beat down for days after the tornado had already cast its wrath upon the town.

“It was raining, and the next morning, we tried to come in and see how much damage we had, and they wouldn’t let us in,” said Barbara Hubert, who owned a home on Main Street, a home she’d lived in for 31 years. “It rained for two days, so it ruined it that much more.”

Such an ominous rain seemed to drown the city in heartache and ruin, seemed to mark the city and its people as hopeless. Today, it rains no more. Today, Greensburg is a place of rebirth.

This is a place where old neighbors exchange hugs when they cross paths at the temporary bank in town. This is a place where young couples slow dance to “Twist and Shout,” gazing into each other’s eyes, while everyone else jumps up and down screaming the words as if they were etched into their heads, onto their hearts.

Today Greensburg is a place of celebration.

Four walls to hold me

Amber Boyles and her husband do not blame God for the storm that completely destroyed their newly purchased home when it ripped through the city in an ungodly rage that lasted a mere 10 minutes.

“We were here because it was a small town,” said Boyles, who now lives with her husband and two children in a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer park set up after the storm. She knows she’s lucky to have a place to lay her head at night.

“We’ll be here until the end,” she said. “I thank God to have a place to go.”

The people of Greensburg say they’ve grown accustomed to the trailers in “Femaville” – around 200 FEMA mobile homes arranged in rows. They’ve grown accustomed to the dust, the noise, the lack of privacy. Many of them have even decorated, hoping to create a temporary home despite the circumstances. Boyles puts up pictures to make it feel like home, even though residents are encouraged not to hang items up on the walls.

“We just pretend like we’re camping out,” she said.

It works most days. Most days, Boyles lives a normal life – at least as normal of a life that a tornado survivor can live after only a year. Other days are more difficult. Other nights, Boyles’ children lie awake listening to the wind, afraid of the force behind it, fearing a repeat of the night that changed their lives forever.

“I have to sleep with one or both of them every night,” she said.

Survivors: “I wish I still lived there”

The bare trees are scattered everywhere in Greensburg. Some are cracked, split in two, as if the hand of God reached down and crushed them.

Few remain standing, white, bare, leafless. The landscape is flat. Alfalfa fields and pastures of fat cows encompass the city famous for claiming the world’s largest hand dug well as its own.

The people – the children of farmers and hard workers, of people with sandpaper hands and crooked smiles – now work at the gas compressor stations in town, the brown tent of a hospital, the few local businesses left standing.

“We really just lost Main Street,” outgoing Mayor John Janssen, who lost his own home in the twister, said. “The bulk of our employment is still here.”

Yet Greensburg – once the largest city in Kiowa County – has been left behind. Families, many growing up here, others living their entire lives in Greensburg, are leaving.

“There are people that bought homes that want to come back,” Janssen said. “It is not going to be the old Greensburg, but by the same token, there are going to be people who want to be here.”

Hubert, who now lives five miles outside of town, said she couldn’t afford to rebuild her old home. Instead, she and her husband opted to move out to the family farm and build a new home.

“We sold our lot in town,” she said. “You just don’t know what to do. When you get to be a certain age, it’s too much for you to rebuild.”

She misses Greensburg. Her husband spends his days farming, while she remains alone with her thoughts, with the memories that haunt her.

“I’ve gone through a lot of depression,” she said. “It still seems unbelievable.”

Unbelievable that a tornado with winds reaching 200 mph and a funnel 1.7 miles wide could flatten a 1 1/2 square-mile town in less than 10 minutes.

“There was no way,” Janssen said. “The good Lord looked after that town like you can’t believe.”

Long road back

Boyles was born and raised here and believes in Greensburg like she believes in the people who made her fall in love with it.

“My children say, ‘We’ll live in a tent if we have to, just don’t take us away from Greensburg,'” she said.

Her children, one five and the other 11, are survivors. They lived through the twister; they lived through the nightmare that became their life for one whole night.

Boyles was in Dodge City when she found out that her hometown experienced a direct hit. It was midnight, and the only thing on her mind was the safety of her children who were staying with her mother for the night.

The roads to Greensburg were closed, Boyles said. She couldn’t get through, couldn’t find out if her children were safe. So Boyles started walking – not a strong, determined walk, but rather a walk of faith. Not knowing what she’d find when she made it home, Boyles walked for 15 miles. She climbed over cars and trucks, over trees and rocks, before someone said her family had been taken to shelter.

Scars that never fade away

Down the hill from Hubert’s newly built home, past scattered debris and remnants of homes once standing, is the city she once lived in, is the lot she once owned a home on.

The home, along with the homes of more than 1,000 other people, was destroyed a year ago. Hubert was watching the TV when it happened, when she heard the sirens sound and knew she and her husband must seek shelter.

Their home had no basement. Instead, her husband had built a small crawlspace beneath the house when it was constructed more than three decades ago.

“The whistle went off for a long time,” said Hubert whose lime green T-shirt stands out in the crowd. “We went under there never expecting to have a tornado like that.”

Her T-shirt reads, “Hand in hand, we will dig.” It’s a reflection of her feelings, of the spirit of the people of Greensburg.

“You can live somewhere else,” she said with tired eyes, with a tired heart. “But it’s just not like home.”

On that fateful night, Hubert and her husband crawled on their hands and knees to safety – an act that surely saved their lives.

“We had to kind of go on our stomach because it wasn’t tall enough,” she said moving her arms up and down the way she did that night. “We were wedged in and couldn’t get out.”

Hubert has scars to prove it. Her arms, small and fragile are covered in small, white marks.

“My skin is so thin that I got scars from where it layed back the skin,” she said pointing them out on her aged arms. “It’s just a terrible ordeal to go through. It doesn’t seem possible that it’s been a year already.”

Body bags and newfound hope

When Janssen pulled into Greensburg at 3:30 a.m., he knew there would be casualties among the people of his city.

“All we could do was start trying to figure out where everyone was and get everyone accounted for,” he said. “We hauled all our neighbors down to the evacuation center.”

Janssen’s neighbors were among the lucky ones. The fate of 11 others would not be as fortunate.

“There was a large concern when we saw the west side of town because it was just so devastated,” said Janssen, who now lives in a temporary shed on his farm outside of town.

At that point, the fire chief ordered 300 body bags – one bag for every casualty he predicted.

“I didn’t think he was wrong,” Janssen said.

But the two were wrong. The list of survivors was longer than the list of those citizens who lost their lives, though the short list of names remains more prevailing and disheartening than anything else.

“This will never be the same,” Boyles said as she looks out at the people of Greensburg. “You just don’t know what (the victims) were thinking.”

Today, Greensburg remains a place of uncertainty – uncertainty about the past, uncertainty about the future, uncertainty about the lives of the people who remain behind, clinging to the memory of a once thriving town.

“The neat thing is that a lot of the people that bailed want to come to town now that they see what we’re doing,” Janssen said, as if his small basement office had not been nearly ruined in the tornado. “They want to be a part of that.”

For others, Greensburg is a changing place, and the memories of that night are too much to bear.

“This will never be the same,” Boyles said as she stares out at the flocks of people gathered in town for the one-year anniversary of the tornado. “Everybody’s saying it’s a celebration, but it’s not for me.”

Today, Greensburg is a place of rehabilitation and perhaps, one day, a place of full recovery.