Iowa Public Television

 

Killer Tornado Devastates Greensburg, Kansas

posted on May 11, 2007


To say that the weather this spring has been unusual would be the understatement of the year. Some parts of the country -- particularly the west and southeast -- are coping with severe drought. Arid conditions and high winds have spawned more than 250 wildfires in Georgia, Florida, California and as far north as the boundary waters in Minnesota. In the Midwest, too much rain is the problem. Parts of Iowa, Kansas and Missouri received 4-to-8 inches of rain in one 24-hour period this past week causing thousands to be evacuated from their homes. But nowhere has the weather been more severe -- or more deadly -- than in and around Greensburg, Kansas, where a category F5 tornado killed 12 people last Friday. Packing winds in excess of 200 miles per hour, the 1.7-mile-wide tornado annihilated virtually everything in its path. Market to Market's Andrew Batt inspected the damage this week and filed this report.

For the people of Greensburg, Kansas, devastation is an understatement.

Dean Gamble, Greensburg, KS: "You just can't believe that this could ever happen. These pine trees are two and a half feet in diameter…probably been there 50 years and 60-feet tall. And this thing just picked em up and dropped them…like toothpicks."

Dean Gamble, a retired school teacher and wheat farmer couldn't believe his eyes when he emerged from his cellar last Friday night.

Gamble: "That right there used to be my front porch…"

The 76-year old had recently moved into a new home on the north side of town. Last weekend's killer tornado threw his roof clear across Greensburg. His trucks were crushed by pine trees and most of his valuables are gone. When Market to Market caught up with Gamble days after the F5 tornado ravaged every building in town, he was still picking up the pieces…finding a few personal items still worth keeping.

Gamble: "Stay right there. There is something else in here I didn't notice before."

Gamble's home fared better than most structures. Some houses are nothing more than concrete slabs…basements filled with shattered furniture, small cars and farm trucks crushed…thrown hundreds of yards away by a tornado larger than the entire town.

Gamble: "Never underestimate what a tornado can or cannot do. It can do anything it wants to."

Nothing in Greensburg was spared from the tornado. A large John Deere dealership on the western edge of town was decimated. Combines dumped into water-filled ditches…others destroyed by flying limbs and pieces of nearby homes. The dealership estimates dozens of combines were destroyed totaling millions of dollars in losses…a fraction of the estimated cost to rebuild the rural Kansas town from the ground up.

Hours after the storm, aid began pouring into Greensburg. Local, state, and federal authorities were a constant sight in nearly every section of town.

The U.S. military has already begun the clean-up process here…one expected to last months.

Military helicopters circled one of the town's last standing structures…the local grain elevator. But even this building will be torn down if officials discover substantial structural damage.

President George Bush: "There's a certain spirit in the Midwest of our country, a pioneer spirit that still exists, and I'm confident this community will be rebuilt. To the extent that we can help, we will."

With many in the media focusing on Greensburg, Market to Market chose to follow the tornado's path north as it ravaged farms, crops, and other rural communities throughout central Kansas.

In Ellinwood, northeast of Greensburg, the devastation also was clear. Rural churches were decapitated by the storm and power lines were still down four days later.

John Menzer, Ellinwood, KS: "This used to be a beautiful farmstead. Not anymore. Now we have nothing."

John Menzer's farm was swept away by the tornado. Every outbuilding has disappeared after high winds tore the barns and single garage into pieces…scattering the debris across nearby farms. Neighbors have already come by to help…offering bulldozers and moving equipment. Menzer, who works for a local cooperative, said his home was left standing but will have to be torn down soon.

Menzer: "You can't imagine the feeling it's just horrible. We'll rebuild…we'll be alright."

Menzer's twenty-head of cattle somehow made it through the storm intact. But others weren't so lucky. Stories throughout central Kansas reported farmers finding dead livestock from other counties on their farms.

Even rural residents outside of the tornado's path weren't spared from the torrential rains that dumped 14 inches of heavy precipitation…swelling local rivers over their banks. The nearby Arkansas River was at its highest level in history as the waters closed highways and flooded crop fields.

Keith Miller, Great Bend, KS: "This field we'll lose 100% of due to hail and the water will drown us out."

Keith Miller farms over 8,000 acres of wheat, corn, and alfalfa in central Kansas. A substantial number of his fields are under water and probably will be for weeks.

Miller: "This has been the roughest year in agriculture I can remember…."

East of Ellinwood, near Lyons, KS, a group of wheat farmers took stock of a crop that has already suffered an Easter freeze and now faces considerable flooding.

Dean Stoskopf, Kansas Wheat Commission: "We've taken significant bushels off in Central Kansas since this weekend's storm."

Doug Keesling, Chase, KS: "It's devastating because you have two different time frames that you're going through and farmers are going through an emotional high and low 4."

Shane Edwards, Farm Loan Officer: "It's been a somber event for my farm customers. They feel like with the flood and the rain that they have sort of been kicked. It's going to have a huge economic impact to the local businesses and farm producers."

The farmers led Market to Market on a tour of wheat fields blasted by this spring's late freeze…

Keesling: "You can see plants that are deformed. This one is not a viable plant anymore. It will not yield."

…And other fields recently under six feet of water.

Keesling: "Most of the damage is the mud all below. The debris and the filth all over the plants will limit photosynthesis."

Wheat farmers in central Kansas did not attempt to estimate the total losses for the region. But their outlook is grim as some fields may take weeks to dry out.

Back in Greensburg, many residents want to rebuild while others hope to move on. Dean Gamble isn't ready to make that decision.

Gamble: "We'd like to rebuild but at my age, should I? I don't know. I think in time when the shock of all this is over I might be more rational than I am now. But it's a rude awakening. We thought we had our lives well intact and everything would be great. Now what? We just have to start all over again."

While residents come to grips with the worst tornado disaster in nearly a decade, the devastation is all too clear. Hundreds of devastated farms, twelve lives, and one small town still picking up the pieces of what's left.

For Market to Market, I'm Andrew Batt.

 


Tags: agriculture disasters farms HEAT Iowa-storms-08 Kansas news storms tornadoes