Most people have some knowledge or have at least heard of Greensburg, Kansas since the aftermath of the tragic tornado that devastated the town in 2007. People have heard of how Greensburg is "Going Green", and how they are working towards becoming a role model for other communities. This has made people familiar what’s happening in Greensburg in the five years since the tornado. However, most people don't know what the town was really like before that fateful day in May when an EF5 tornado would drastically change it forever.
I was raised in Greensburg, and I loved it the way it was. Before the tornado, Greensburg was a quiet town with familiar family names, streets, homes, businesses and buildings. When I was growing up, our big claim to fame was a hole in the ground. “The Big Well” was the focus of visitors to town, and we had some attention when the town hired divers to come and clean out all of the things that had been dropped into the well over the years. I think that a camera was found, and even a priest’s silver cross necklace. There were lots of coins recovered, too.Greensburg was calm and quiet, and the divers coming seemed really exciting to me and all my friends. So many things have changed since those days.
Sometimes, I go back to Greensburg to visit some of my family who have rebuilt their home there. When I enter the edge of town, I am always overwhelmed with a sense of loss so profound that there are barely words to describe it. Imagine the feeling that comes with the knowledge that your hometown is gone, and almost every tangible childhood memory has vanished.
The tornado changed everything in Greensburg. I remember walking down Main Street and letting my tiny finger trace the beautiful red bricks of the magnificent old downtown buildings. I used to love looking at the little concrete statues on the corners of some of the buildings. One was of a rabbit, I especially loved that one. The original drug store and theatre are also gone. Even the main street layout has changed now. Everything that was familiar is gone. A good link for viewing a few before and after pictures of Greensburg can be found here: Greensburg Before and After Photos
The brick house I grew up in, has been brutally relocated to places unknown. What was left of it had to be demolished. In the attic of that house, we had stored countless boxes of children's toys and dolls, along with a porch swing I owned but kept there until I one day had my own home with a porch to install it on. Photo albums were also lost, pictures don’t look the same after you rescue them from the rain, peel them apart, and put books on them to try to dry them out flat. Countless personal belongings will never be recovered. The tornado apparently does have a sick sense of humor though. When my father went to see what he could salvage from the debris, he found something weird on the concrete front porch steps. It was one of those smashed pennies you can buy out of little vending machines, the kind where the penny is smashed and some other image is pressed into it. This particular penny had a cyclone imprinted on it and the the words "Kansas Twister". When my dad told me what he'd found, he concluded the story by saying "See? That tornado left a damn calling card!"
Even the schools (pictured above before tornado) in which I spent so many hours learning were also unable to withstand the sheer power of the tornado. Greensburg High School has ceased to exist. The county has now combined all the students in the county into one school, built in Greensburg, and it’s no longer the Greensburg Rangers. It’s now the Kiowa County Mavericks. Yes, it’s true, the tornado managed to kill Ricky Ranger.
My school mascot is only a memory of a funky paper mache head now.
As you can probably guess, the thought of going home does not fill me with the expectation of happiness as I imagine it does for most people. There is nothing left there that feels like home. It’s like a creepy episode of The Twilight Zone.
Greensburg feels uncomfortable and strange to me now. It feels like any other anywhere town filled with faceless, nameless people that I don’t know. There's a lot of new people that I've never seen before. I’ve been told a few times that some of the previous Greensburg residents couldn’t afford to rebuild within the green standards that Greensburg homes are now expected to meet. That’s so heartbreaking. I feel horrible for those people, too. It’s as though they’ve lost Greensburg twice, isn't it? Once in the tornado, and once again when they couldn’t meet the new requirements to rebuild there.
Honestly, I think Greensburg has done the best that they could considering the situation. They put a lot of thought into it and going green was an obvious choice, thus drawing necessary attention to their efforts to rebuild. As usual, being environmentally friendly isn’t always the cheapest or easiest way to go. If it’s good for you, it usually costs more, right? I hate it that they’ve caught a lot of grief from some of the neighboring towns that you would have reasonably expected to be helpful or at least sympathetic. Coldwater, for example. I was told that when Coldwater played Kiowa County Mavericks (formerly Greensburg Rangers) at Coldwater’s Homecoming game one year, the floats that Coldwater students built were less than kind. That’s phrasing it mildly. Accusing Greensburg basically of being all about the money, calling Greensburg tree huggers and referencing things like that.The saddest part is not only that Coldwater’s school system allowed these floats to be made by their students, they allowed them to be displayed at the game by the stands where the victims of the Greensburg tornado would be subjected to viewing the jokes and insults. The people in charge of Coldwater schools should have encouraged their students to learn compassion, kindness and empathy from the tragedy that befell Greensburg. Instead, they encouraged cruelty, snide comments, and bullying. Bad form, Coldwater, bad form indeed!!! One of the floats said “Going Green” and had signs on it suggesting “Save a Tree, Wipe with Leaves”. Another float actually even stooped to comparing their own team to the tornado. It read “Greensburg Gonna Blow You Away!” I would rather live in a town trying to survive and recovering from a tornado, than to live in a town like Coldwater that cultivates hatefulness. You can see some of their thoughtless homecoming entries on this youtube video:
Although I have mixed feelings about Greensburg now, I would never wish them anything but the best, truthfully I do, but to me it’s just not my old hometown Greensburg anymore. It’s not the Greensburg I remember anyway, because THAT Greensburg is gone. Part of me wishes they would have just completely renamed the town, too. After the tornado destroyed it, it would have been less painful to just sort of bury the old Greensburg and let it go. I kind of wish they could have renamed it Greentown, or Greenville, anything other than leaving it named Greensburg. Simply put, my hometown Greensburg is gone, and it feels like the new Greensburg is somehow being put into competition with the memory of the way the town was. Unfortunate, but I would bet I'm not the only person that feels that way. I wouldn’t wish this tragedy on anyone. It was horrible, tragic and devastating. Twelve people lost their lives, and everyone else lost their homes, belongings and/or their peace of mind. I pray that the former residents find fulfilling and happy lives, and I hope they achieve their dreams in their efforts to renew and rebuild their lives, wherever they may have chosen to do so. For those who have decided to stay in Greensburg, I also wish only the very best for you while you rebuild a “new and improved” Greensburg. It’s going to be very hard to make Greensburg better than it was before the tornado, those are awfully big shoes to fill. As always, countless numbers of people, including myself, will continue sending you our prayers. Cheers to your future, and tears to your past. May God bless you all!
***Note: By the way, for those readers who don't know about it yet, The Big Well is having it's grand reopening on May 26, 2012. It's worth a trip if you get a chance to go, just remember that going down the stairs is easy...it's coming back up that's difficult!