One Year after Tornado, Greensburg Still Struggling to Survive

By | May 9, 2008

Unlike Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, one year after a devastating tornado destroyed their town, many in Greensburg, Kan. are still not able to go home. Some 700 residents remain in the town that once had a population of 1,500 people. One hundred and forty families still live in FEMA trailers today, one year later. .

Although some have started to rebuild, others are still haggling with their insurers.

“We had replacement cost coverage with State Farm,” said Ron Larrick, long-time Greensburg resident. “It isn’t enough to rebuild, but somehow we will have to make the best of it.”

Larrik said he and his wife, Verita, heard the siren signaling a dangerous storm at 9:47 p.m. They agreed to go to the basement and sat quietly huddled in a closet with no windows in the basement for more than 35 minutes.

“When the awful sound stopped, we went upstairs to see the damage. When we reached the top of the stairs we saw that only one wall of our house was still standing. Our car was blown 60 feet away and had a tree limb in the front seat and someone’s vacuum cleaner in the back.” Larrick added that he could hear people “hollering for help” because they were stuck in the basement and couldn’t get out.

Devastation Over Several Days

It all began on a quiet Friday evening on May 4. An extended tornado outbreak began that affected portions of Central United States with the most destructive tornado in the outbreak occurring in the city of Greensburg in Kiowa County where 95 percent of the town was destroyed by an EF5 tornado. The supercell killed at least 13 people including 11 in Greensburg and two in Pratt County by a separate tornado. At least 60 people were injured in Greensburg alone. That night, tornadoes were reported across Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas and South Dakota. Twenty-five tornadoes were confirmed that night.

The outbreak did not end there; a total of 84 tornadoes were confirmed on May 5 in the same area. Most were in open country but one fatality was reported in Ottawa County, Kansas near a county lake. Fourteen more tornadoes were confirmed on May 6 in the same general area before the activity subsided.

Greensburg Unique

None of the other storms destroyed an entire town. The Greensburg tragedy tugged at the hearts of people all over the country. In addition to insurance payments and federal aid, people from near and far away sent money to help.

“I think without the publicity and donations, we would and could possibly could lose it all,” said State Farm Agent Shanda Swinehart, both a victim and an agent. Shanda’s entire office was leveled and her home considered a total loss as well.

Swinehart was not a resident for long and in fact inherited a book of business from another agent several months before the tornado tragedy.

“I was busy meeting with policyholders to go over their coverage needs weeks before the storm,” she said. “Although many upgraded their coverage, the real tragedy is the policyholders who opted not to add coverage or look at other options. In many cases a long hug was all that could be shared.”

On a positive note, Swinehart said that almost all of the policyholders who are rebuilding are all adding “safe rooms.” Safe rooms are usually located in the basement, have no windows and have wall that can withstand a specified amount of wind. Swinehart believes this one construction change will save many lives.

Kansas State Commissioner Sandy Praeger released a statement on the first anniversary of the tornado saying, “The insurance industry has been exemplary in their response to the devastation in Greensburg…There were insurance company adjusters on their way as early as 8:00 a.m. on Saturday, the day after the tornado.”

The Fujita Scale for Tornadoes

Category Damage Original F scale (1)
Wind speed (mph)
Enhanced F scale (2)
3-second gust (mph)
F-0 Light 40-72 65-85
F-1 Moderate 73-112 86-110
F-2 Considerable 113-157 111-135
F-3 Severe 158-207 136-165
F-4 Devastating 208-260 166-200
F-5 Incredible 261-318 Over 200

(1) Original scale: Wind speeds represent fastest estimated speeds over 1/4 mile.
(2) Enhanced scale: Wind speeds represent maximum 3-second gusts.

Source: U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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