Riding Out the Storm
In the late evening of May 4, 2007, Mick Kendall, Electric Utility Superintendent for the City of Greensburg, was huddled with his family in the basement of his neighbor’s home. His home had only a crawl space, so it was imperative to find a safer place to protect his family in case of disaster. He was right to do so, as we now know, since disaster visited Greensburg that very night.
Mick saw nothing in the surreal scene that accompanies tornado disasters when he emerged from the basement after the storm’s first wave hit, removing the second story from the house in which the families had taken shelter. It looked like a bomb went off throughout the whole area, Mick said. The wind rose again, so Mick returned below ground. The second wave removed the rest of the house and finally moved on. Emerging a second time, Mick looked around and commented to his neighbor that “We might be the only ones alive in this town”. He then saw other people coming out everywhere.
Mick’s first inclination was to check on his home since it was nearby, but it was gone. He next sought out his parents, digging his mother out of the cellar. After making sure that his family was safe and had a place to stay, Mick went to work for Greensburg for the next several days, relying on relatives to clean up his own property.
Mick’s first stop was the power plant, which had been operating pursuant to City protocol prior to the storm. The plant was destroyed by the tornado. Mick was able to dig the operator out of the basement where he had taken shelter. Mick’s next stop was the command center that was already set up and operating. Help from area cities was arriving; electric line crews to handle distribution system safety and public works crews to clear streets for rescue work. This activity continued through the night.
It is important to note the point about the arrival of help from other cities almost immediately. They are, of course, too numerous to list in this article, but with all of Greensburg’s equipment resources destroyed, mutual aid was critical to the rescue and recovery effort.
Greensburg’s water system was made inoperable by the destruction of the water tower. Had the tower remained standing, there was no electricity to run pumps for water distribution to the tower from the four water wells located within the city. One well house was destroyed and there was damage to the well head. Another well house had a natural gas generator, which was rendered inoperable due to the loss of natural gas in the community when the gas lines were closed to prevent fires. The tornado broke many of the water services to individual houses. Fortunately, no fires erupted in the community during the storm event, but water main and service breaks were discovered once water was restored. Heavy trucks and equipment, especially from careless contractors, broke water valve risers and meter pits by driving over them. Mick related an amazing story of the power of the tornado when it spun a fire hydrant off the threaded standpipe connected to the water line, leaving it laying on the ground.
The electric utility suffered nearly total damage from the storm. As mentioned, the power plant was destroyed, leaving generating units open to the rain that followed the storm event. Most of the utility poles were taken down with transformers and power lines strewn across the landscape. The substation east of the power plant was badly damaged. The substation transformer had a hole in it apparently from being struck by debris. The shop that housed the utility bucket trucks and digger derrick truck was destroyed along with the equipment inside.
Greensburg’s wastewater treatment process is provided by lagoons fed by gravity-flow sewer lines. There was no damage to the sewer infrastructure by the tornado, however, ensuing rain infiltrating the sewer lines from the destruction of homes overwhelmed the lagoons and basically destroyed the bacterial process that takes place in the lagoons to clean the wastewater.
The storm did not do much direct damage to streets, however, the cleanup and recovery activities that required large trucks and equipment caused damage to many chip and seal streets in the community that had to be repaved. Existing curb and gutter also suffered damage from heavy trucks and equipment driving over it.
Other municipal structures, such as city hall and the city public works shop were destroyed along with various utility and municipal records that were not electronically stored elsewhere. The City of Greensburg had virtually no equipment remaining with which to provide services. Nearly all city employees were left without homes.
Today, Greensburg uses the method of ion exchange to treat its well water for the use of its residents. This process was necessary to remove the nitrates from Greensburg’s water, which was a serious concern prior to the tornado. And, of course, Greensburg has a new water tower that stands proudly by the Big Well Museum.
The electric utility has virtually all new infrastructure. The City decided not to rebuild the power plant and sold the five generating units. Mick’s choice would have been to bury the distribution system, but the cost difference was prohibitive at the time. With the loss of trees during the storm, damage from tree limbs is non-existent for now. Greensburg joined the Kansas Power Pool in 2008. KPP helped Greensburg become recognized as a “green city” with a contract for 12.5 MW’s of energy from the wind farm southwest of town.
Wastewater treatment uses the same lagoons. There was so much storm water infiltration that FEMA paid to line the sewer mains. From the loss of so many homes that have not been rebuilt and the installation of low flow plumbing, the sewer system has a problem of low flow that City crews must periodically flush with clean water, perhaps a small price to pay for new sewer mains.
Greensburg’s recovery has been long and difficult over the past ten years since the disaster. With determination and the help of others too numerous to mention, the community has been rebuilt. Water and electricity were restored, temporarily at first, and then with new infrastructure where needed. The sewer mains were lined and are like new. A new, sleek city hall sits proudly at 300 South Main Street amidst other progressive structures one will not find in a small city of fewer than 1,000 population anywhere in Kansas or elsewhere for that matter. City hall now has a safe room located immediately behind the city council dais with walls and ceiling of concrete at least twelve inches thick. The town is very attractive and an interesting place to visit. The Big Well Museum is better than ever and a new, beautiful multi-purpose Twilight Theater is a great venue for movies and meetings.
The City of Greensburg owns the Big Well Museum as well as the new small business incubator building located downtown. Other new facilities include new schools, athletic facilities, hospital, and the Kiowa County Commons, which houses a historical museum, Kansas State Extension Service, library, and a multi-media center. There are also many new retail businesses and other professional services that returned to the community.
Does Greensburg struggle? Of course it does. Five hundred fewer residents, a lower property tax valuation, and fewer utility ratepayers make it more difficult for Greensburg to maintain service levels. And besides, business as usual for local government is never easy. But as with many small communities on the Great Plains, its people are resilient.
It’s very difficult to wrap one’s mind around a disaster like this. We hear about it happening to someone somewhere else and can never fully understand what they are going through. From our better nature we might respond with contributions of money, material necessities, or labor. It is clearly helpful, but also limited. The ones who remain must, and do, continue as though they have no other option but to remain. People seem to develop a sense of place for themselves – a sense of home and all that defines it – that summons them to choose that very spot on the planet to continue their existence. They accept the circumstance of the past and occupy themselves with the need to move forward.
On May 4, 2017, the Greensburg community along with many friends and family gathered to dedicate a new park in the downtown area. Later that evening, people gathered to remember the eleven neighbors who lost their lives during the storm of 2007. To borrow a famous phrase, it was altogether fitting and proper that they should do that.
Three KPP staff members joined the Greensburg community for those two events. The new park includes a metal cylinder that was designed locally and constructed in El Dorado. It has a light inside that makes for an impressive display at night.
Later that night, the community reflected on the eleven lives lost on May 4, 2007. Somber in its purpose, the service was quietly poignant on a beautiful, cloudless night.