One Kansas Town's Journey Back from Devastation

Mar 2, 2018  | 7 min  | Ep4328

A tornado rocked a southern Kansas town more than a decade ago leaving residents with the tough decision of leaving or rebuilding.

Those who stayed have faced an uphill financial battle exacerbated by controversial tax-cut policies enacted by former Governor Sam Brownback. Undeterred, the hardy souls who remained have kept up the fight to restore their lives.

Josh Buettner has our Cover Story.

Kim Gamble/Greensburg, Kansas: “To me it was as much a feeling as a sound.  I mean, yes, it was roaring and it was loud, but we really could feel the earth shake.”

Nearly 11 years ago, Kim Gamble and her farm family    sought refuge from an EF5 tornado that nearly wiped Greensburg, Kansas off the map. 

Kim Gamble/Greensburg, Kansas: “To see all your stuff blown all over in your house in one thing, but you go to town and you can’t even find a house, so…”

Her husband Ki’s wheat crop took a beating that year.  And even though volunteers helped scour fields adding up to the size of the small town itself, random debris is still entangled within thickets nearby.

Kim Gamble/Greensburg, Kansas: “For people who lost their home, lost their job…I think it was harder because their day was filled with just that sense of overwhelming what do I do next?  We knew well we’ve got to start the irrigation engine.  So we had a little bit of that, that I think helped us move down the road.  Would you sat that’s probably right?”

Ki Gamble/Greensburg, Kansas: “And when you look out the window and you could see the trains go through town and you could never see trains before.  That was really weird.”

For decades, Greensburg’s claim to fame was the world’s largest hand-dug well, completed in the 1800’s.  But the emphasis shifted in May 2007.

Meteorologist/OFFSCREEN: “You’ve been watching this for quite a little while and what did you estimate its maximum width was?”

Stormchaser/OFFSCREEN: “Um…I would say easily a mile and that’s kind of being conservative.”

The night-time twister tore a 29 mile path north through Comanche County up to Greensburg, the seat of Kiowa County - 100 miles west of Wichita.  205 mile-per-hour surface winds were reported in town. 

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, among the population of 1,600, 11 died, and nearly 1,500 homes and businesses were either destroyed or sustained major or minor damage – a 95% loss.  To many residents, the town and surrounding landscape were unrecognizable.

Dean Gamble/Greensburg, Kansas (2007): “I almost got lost in this small town because there’s no landmarks.  Nothing’s standing except the elevator.”

Market to Market toured the devastation with Ki’s father, Dean Gamble, less than 48 hours after the 2007 cyclone struck.  While then President George W. Bush declared Greensburg a disaster area eligible for federal aid, the retired teacher and farmer, now deceased, surveyed his decimated home. 

Dean Gamble/Greensburg, Kansas (2007): “It’s a rude awakening.  We thought we had our lives well intact and everything would be great.  But now what? You just gotta start all over again…It’s hard to take…”

Bob Dixson/Mayor – Greensburg, Kansas: “We were making a lot of decisions early on in this emotional state of mind that first six to eight months after the tornado.”

One year into the aftermath, the town’s well-respected postmaster, Bob Dixson, was prodded by community members to run for Mayor - and won.  Since then he has helped shepherd the town’s vision toward an environmentally proactive rehab.

Bob Dixson/Mayor – Greensburg, Kansas: “The concept of going green started the night after the tornado when representatives from the Governor’s office, our local elected officials…FEMA was in town already, and the discussion started back, hey, you’re going to have to rebuild a whole town.  Let’s make sure we do it in a right, prudent and responsible manner.”

Dixson says Greensburg’s City Council passed a resolution to erect all new municipal buildings to meet a LEED platinum standard – a designation certified by the U.S. Green Building Council. 

Greensburg’s City Hall used 75,000 bricks claimed from the rubble in its new structure.  Other buildings followed suit – employing things like natural light, effective use of shade, and solar panels.  Wind turbines now dot the landscape as well – helping curb the town’s carbon footprint – along with its electric bill.

Energy-efficient solutions have been encouraged across the community.  The local hospital and John Deere dealership played along, as did the school system.  But for some, the up-front costs were daunting. 

City officials grant that rebuilding “green” averaged around 12 percent above standard costs, but point to a study by the National Renewable Energy Lab – a division of the U.S. Department of Energy – which calculated up to a 40 percent subsequent increase in performance.

The Mayor admits a progressive push in an area traditionally skeptical of overarching change has led to bumps in the road forward. 

Bob Dixson/Mayor – Greensburg, Kansas: “Here in the agricultural community and throughout the Midwest and the High Plains, we’re very independent people. And so rules and regulations sometimes are misinterpreted as an infringement on our freedoms and our rights.  And sometimes they are.  And sometimes we use that as an excuse.”

Greensburg’s population is still well below what it was before the tornado.  For elderly citizens, rebuilding wasn’t really their cup of tea.  But there are hints of a younger generation putting down roots.   So after $75 million in insurance payments, non-profit funds and government assistance have helped the town rise from the ashes, some say local investors are key to Greensburg’s longevity.

Ki Gamble/Greensburg, Kansas: “After you get a community wiped out and lose friend and family, it changes your whole perspective on life.”

The Gambles and other local producers have sunk over $1 million into the town’s business incubator area, which helps local entrepreneurs keep a lid on costs as they get their operations off the ground.

Along with other investments in the community, farmers turned benefactors have showcased the resilience of a town that could have become nothing more than a memory.

Ki Gamble/Greensburg, Kansas: “There’s people that can and do and there’s people that can do, but don’t.  And we’re very fortunate that the people that can we have a whole lot of people that do in this community to make it better, to address quality of life issues.”

For Market to Market, I’m Josh Buettner. @mtmjosh





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