Rex and I had a new Martin guitar in the backseat and the agriculture economics report on the radio. We were swinging back to Barber County by way of Greensburg, a small town in Kansas that was deleted this past May by a tornado. We were there to check up on some relation, but really on how effective the response has been. He prepared me for a fair amount of shock. I’m not sure how well anyone can be prepared to see a city not be there.
On 4 May, the F5 descended at 9:45pm and took with it 95% of the town and eleven lives. On the ground it was nearly two miles wide and sustained over ten minutes and twenty-two miles. The parent system was a supercell combined from two front masses each with a twenty degree difference on either side. It was hot, small, and sustainable -- the definition of the nightmare scenario.
Greensburg is (or was?) just another poor Kansas town. Two towns over from the one in which I grew up, per capita average income is $18,054 with 12.4% of the local population below the poverty line. A 1A school, they only had enough kids in school for an eight man football team. Average age: 46 years old.
We were well inside the city limits before I realized we were even there. The splintered limb trees and rubble were still a bit downtown, the first giveaway for me was the sudden increase in steel buildings. Hastily thrown up sheds more than buildings really, they were now the local auto repair and church at the edge of town. Nothing on the west side of that city had any wood or fiberglass. All that had been destroyed by the F5.
Main Street was the snapshot of a trainwreck. What once had been the stereotypical Midwestern residential area was now a spooky vista of leafless trees jutting out of the earth like skeletal palms around foundations in various stages of con/destruction. Pieces of plywood driven into freshly plowed lawns stood like grave markers for the recently deceased pieces of the American Dream. Comical graffiti injected defensive humor into a thoroughly depressing scene.
Knowing Kansas folks like I do, I have no doubt a lot of labor has gone into rebounding from this disaster. A lot of fight is left in the insurance companies and federal agencies they are battling against, and waging a war heartbroken is what these people do. I was looking at a city empty for over six months now and I know it wasn’t from lack of local labor.
95% of this town constitutes less than a square mile, perhaps 40 homes at the most. 40 single story homes probably less than 2,000 square feet a piece. After six months, merely ten were nearing completion.
If Greensburg, Kansas were selling overpriced lattes and luxury handbags in California, 80,000 square feet of building would be exactly a six month project. If this town were in California, these people wouldn’t be spending Thanksgiving in FEMA trailers.
And if this town were in California, you’d hear someone complain about it.