Published January 13, 2015
Weary residents picked through their splintered homes Monday for what few possessions they could salvage from the ruins of the powerful weekend tornado that flattened their town, somehow thankful that the storm has not been blamed for more deaths.
The 1.7-mile-wide Category F-5 enhanced tornado — staying on the ground for 22 miles — killed at least 10 people in Greensburg and destroyed an estimated 95 percent of the town.
At least 13 people were injured and remained hospitalized Monday at three different hospitals, four in critical condition, one in serious condition, four in fair condition and four in good condition. The storm system also killed one person in neighboring Pratt County, and another storm early Sunday in Ottawa County spawned a tornado that struck a camper and killed Kitty A. Greenwood, 54.
Authorities released the names of five victims whose families have been notified. Their names are Claude Hopkins, 79; Larry Hoskins, 51; David Lyon, 48; Colleen Panzer, 77, and Ron Rediger, 57. Authorities have said the dead were found at various parts of the town. Two victims were found Monday — one under rubble in the middle of town, and another one was pulled from a lake.
Two rescued survivors, both elderly women, were found Sunday night trapped in the basement of the local Mennonite church after someone walking by heard them hollering, said Greensburg Mayor Lonnie McCollum. They were unhurt after being trapped for two days.
Residents returned Monday to see what could be saved before the cleanup and recovery begins in earnest. Some residents were greeted by piles of rubble nearly 30 feet high. Many said they rode out the storm in basements or in storm cellars. Many emerged after the storm by pushing out through debris, their walls and roofs ripped away.
"My house doesn't have a basement, so I went to my mother's and got in her basement," said resident Scott Huckriede. "But most of the houses in town do have basements, and the ones that don't have the courthouse or the school to go to. I think pretty much everybody went."
Kim Alderfer sifted through the remains of her parents' home where she had grown up. Her own home just outside of town was spared, but her tax and accounting business downtown was demolished. She found some mementos — family photos, a quilt, a shadowbox of memorabilia.
Amid the misery of grieving residents and uncertainty over how the city would rebuild, a growing sense of good fortune emerged, with some crediting a 20-minute warning from the National Weather Service that came in the form of a rare "tornado emergency" alert.
"They gave everybody plenty of warning," Alderfer said. "We tend to take tornadoes not very seriously out here because there are a lot."
A step above the typical tornado warning, which simply means a twister has been spotted or is likely to develop, a tornado emergency is more strongly worded and is used when an extremely dangerous storm is headed directly for a populated area, said meteorologist Jennifer Ritterling.
The last time the NWS issued a tornado emergency was May 3, 1999 when an F-5 tornado struck the Oklahoma City area, killing 36 people. Ritterling said the typical lead time for a tornado is 10 to 18 minutes, but the storm's extreme size made it simpler to spot and predict its movements.
"The strong and violent ones are easier to detect than the smaller tornadoes," she said. "We try not to cry wolf and send out false alarms for things that aren't rotating. You have to put that extra wording in when it appears people are in danger."
Mike Umscheid, an NWS meteorologist at Dodge City who issued the alert, was watching the radar Friday night. Predicting tornadoes involves interpreting a myriad of factors, including air speeds, wind direction and topography. Forecasters look for such things as "velocity couplets," air masses moving quickly in opposite directions very close to each other, and "hook echoes," or instances where rain and hail are being bent into a curve by spinning winds.
Ritterling, who was working with Umscheid, said Umscheid saw such couplets developing in southern Kansas with wind speeds topping out at close to 170 miles an hour.
In his online blog after the storm, Umscheid said he initially thought the tornado would miss Greensburg to the southeast. But then, he said, it began turning more to the north with each pass of the radar.
"I didn't even really give it thought ... the "tornado emergency for Greensburg" ... it was like instinct — just did it," he wrote on the blog.
As cadaver dogs made their way from one flattened house to the next, the discovery Monday of two more bodies — one in the rubble and another in the Kiowa County State Fishing Lake — gave a new urgency to search efforts.
The search stalled briefly Monday after an overturned storage tank began spewing anhydrous ammonia, a toxic substance used for fertilizer by farmers. A portion of the town was evacuated anew, and access to the city was cut off briefly.
Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said the government's response to the disaster was undermined by ongoing National Guard deployments to the Middle East.
"I don't think there is any question if you are missing trucks, Humvees and helicopters that the response is going to be slower," Sebelius said. "We're going to borrow, beg and steal it from wherever you can.
"The real victims here will be the residents of Greensburg, because the recovery will be at a slower pace."
Sebelius said she would address the issue with President Bush when he arrives in Greensburg to tour the damage on Wednesday. White House spokesman Tony Snow rejected the criticism, saying the National Guard had equipment positioned around the country to respond to disasters when requested by states.
"There's been an enormous amount of help on the scene already, frankly, when it comes to what's been going on with the tornado. FEMA has certainly been actively engaged, and the administration is doing whatever it can," Snow said at a White House news conference. "And if there's a need for equipment, it will arrive."
In Greensburg, Maj. Gen. Tod Bunting told reporters that Kansas has just enough assets right now to handle the Greensburg disaster and one more small storm.
Five trailers to house displaced families have arrived in town, and 20 more are on the way, said FEMA Director R. David Paulison. He said if his agency can house 80,000 people on the Gulf Coast, it can handle 1,000 people in Greensburg.
City leaders were eager to get the recovery under way: "Get government going — that is our No. 1 priority," said City Administrator Steve Hewitt. On Monday, a more somber Hewitt was updating reporters on the latest reports of deaths and saying the search will continue throughout the day and into Tuesday.
Workers will be clearing utility easements Tuesday in order to begin restoring water, sewer and gas services, Hewitt said. Until the town has utilities, people cannot use the trailers federal emergency agencies are bringing into town, he said.
Gary Goodheart clutched a jar of change he found as he recounted his joy at finding his wife's wedding ring in the rubble. He joked the loose change was the start of his rebuilding fund. He hid in his basement as the storm roared overhead.
"We had plenty of warning," he said. "If people paid attention to sirens they should have been able to get to a safe place."
There remained plenty of caution about what the rubble might reveal in the coming days. Since the tornado hit Friday night, emergency responders have had little indication of how many people in this central Kansas town of 1,500 may be safely staying with friends or relatives, rather than in shelters.
Law enforcement officials will be checking identification and compiling a list of people whose whereabouts still haven't been determined. Residents were told to leave again by 6 p.m. and would be allowed back into the city Tuesday.
A scene near downtown typified the misery residents were experiencing in their grim march back to town. A woman supported by two other women as they walked along U.S. 54 had to stop frequently, breaking down in sobs.
Amid the searching, a museum volunteer uncovered a missing 1,000-pound pallasite meteorite. One of the largest of its kind in the world, the meteorite is insured for $1 million. For decades, meteorite hunters from around the world have been drawn here to hunt for space rocks in the rich soil.
"I read reports the meteorite was gone, that it got sucked up by the tornado," said Don Stimpson, a volunteer at the Big Well museum where the meteorite had been enclosed in glass. "Unless you know what you are looking for, it looks like rubble."
Tree trunks stood bare in Greensburg, stripped of most of their branches. All the churches were destroyed. Every business on Main Street was demolished, and the town's fire engines were crushed. The massive concrete silos of a grain elevator towered over the flattened expanse of what was left of the town.
"If I hear that people are going to stay and we're going to have a school, then I'll stay," said Greensburg High School shop teacher Peter Kern. "If we don't have a school, I don't have a job."