Rebuilding After the Tornado

When an uncommonly vicious tornado stamped its way through Greensburg, Kansas, efficient and green living became a way of life for the rebuilders.

Rebuilding After the Tornado© 2011 Stefan Falke
The warning sirens wailed as the lightning flashed, and the people of Greensburg scurried for shelter. Elma Helwig, 85 years old, grabbed her purse and her chocolate poodle, Pooler, and headed to her neighbor’s home across the street. Bob Dixson and his family holed up in the basement of the Victorian house he had restored with his own hands. Scott and Jill Eller rushed their daughter, Jessica, into the back bedroom of their one-story ranch, squeezed into a closet with the family’s beagle, Bunny, and shut the flimsy sliding doors. Then they all waited.

Tornadoes are a common threat in the Midwest, but the storm heading toward Greensburg, Kansas, on the night of May 4, 2007, was uncommonly vicious. The average tornado carves a path of destruction about 150 feet wide. This twister stretched 1.7 miles across, a little wider than Greensburg itself. At about 9:30 that night, it was moving through the corn and wheat fields south of the city. A few minutes later, the lights went out, and Dixson, Greensburg’s mayor, knew the twister had crossed the highway south of town and clipped the power lines. At the Ellers’ house, windows began exploding from the extreme drop in air pressure. The tornado drove into the city, then stopped. The 205 mph winds threw pickup trucks into the air, ripped the top floor off the three-story brick school, and flung cows through the surrounding fields. At Mike Estes’s John Deere dealership, 22-ton combines tumbled end over end. Residents cowered, listening to the terrible sounds of their houses disintegrating around them. The tornado sat on Greensburg for eight minutes, grinding up homes, cars, and trees like an enormous food processor.

And then, the city was still, save for the rumble of distant thunder. Dixson figured he might have lost his roof, but then he emerged from the basement onto a flat deck of wood. His home had been wiped away, and in brief seconds during flashes of lightning, he took in what was left of the city: nothing, just piles of debris as far as he could see.

Elma Helwig’s friend, Bill Crites, climbed his basement steps and peered through a window. “Elma,” he said, “you don’t have a house.”

At the Ellers’ home, the back corner where they’d sheltered in the closet was all that remained. Jill’s maroon pickup truck lay upside down in the living room. Eleven of their neighbors lay dead or dying.

As the next day dawned, a resident who had served in the Pacific during World War II said the destruction reminded him of Hiroshima. Except for two old brick buildings downtown, everything was gone: homes, street signs, the water tower, and the hundreds of beautiful old trees that had shaded streets and yards. Lifelong Greensburg residents found themselves lost without familiar landmarks to guide them. Residents picked through the wreckage and salvaged a few treasures: a china vase, family pictures, a stuffed animal. In her front yard, Elma Helwig found the tan ceramic bowl she used to make her prized cinnamon rolls. She had never used a recipe and knew the ratios only from how the ingredients looked in that particular bowl, which she’d owned since 1962. Her baking pans were stacked in the yard, right next to the bowl. Everything else was ruined.

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