Tornado-Struck Town Has Been There Before

On May 4, 2007, most of Greensburg, Kan., was blown off the face of the Earth. Eleven people died, and hundreds of survivors fled, never to return. Host Scott Simon speaks with John Janssen, the former mayor of Greensburg, about what newly-devastated communities can expect as they try to rebuild.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Search and rescue teams in Joplin, Missouri are continuing to sift through the wreckage of this week's massive tornado. One hundred and thirty-two people are confirmed dead there, others are still listed as missing. More than a third of the city was damaged or destroyed, and even as they cope with their losses, Joplin residents face the daunting task of rebuilding their lives and their community.

As they begin that process, they might look to Greensburg, Kansas. Four years ago, a tornado practically obliterated that prairie town. Eleven people died; hundreds of survivors left never to return. But for the most part, the community came together and rebuilt. John Janssen, who was president of the city council when the tornado struck, became the mayor shortly thereafter. He oversaw efforts that made the new Greensburg green - energy-efficient and eco-friendly. Mr. Janssen and his wife now run a public accounting and tax firm for farmers and joins us from Greensburg. Thanks for being with us.

Mr. JOHN JANSSEN (Former President, City Council, Greensburg, Kansas): Good morning.

SIMON: What was the morning after the tornado like?

Mr. JANSSEN: Basically, the town west from Main Street, you could stand on Main Street and look west and see the next town, which is 10 miles away, which you shouldn't be able to do. Things were leveled. It was debris about four feet deep. There was a picture in the, I think, the New York Times or somewhere that showed on top Hiroshima and on the bottom Greensburg. And it was very similar.

SIMON: How did you rebuild the town?

Mr. JANSSEN: Just people are good, hardworking folks out here, and their attitude was is that, you know, people kept saying why are you rebuilding and our question was why not? So, we buckled under and once we got it cleaned up we started the process of rebuilding the town.

SIMON: Mr. Janssen, what might you tell people in scores and even hundreds of towns that have been affected by tornadoes this spring?

Mr. JANSSEN: I think they need to think and plan, other than the immediate duties of trying to find survivors and taking care of the wounded, so to speak, in the triage. The individual citizens really need to think before they act in terms of how they approach what they need to do then - the clean-up, the rebuilding and that sort of thing. Because they are in shock, whether they want to admit it or not. I know people here in town walked around with a really glassy stare, for some of them, over a month.

And you're making life-changing decisions but you're not really in your best mental state to do it.

SIMON: So, you should be careful about making major decisions until you're sure of your judgment.

Mr. JANSSEN: Absolutely. One of the things we did and I guess I would tell everybody to think about it; we made it a point with our insurance agent - not an adjustor, but our insurance agent - and we spent about two hours with her and walked through our policy to see what it covered, because, you know, we've had insurance forever. But we didn't realize everything it covered or didn't cover. But there were some serious issues with insurance adjustors in this community that lead you to believe that you better go to talk your local agent first and then talk to the adjustor.

SIMON: Mr. Janssen, are there people who swoop in because you have so many vulnerable, anxious people there?

Mr. JANSSEN: Oh, yes. This was something that I have harped at and tried to get people to say more about because they're like vultures. The ones that I found really disgusting were insurance adjustors for major insurance companies that went to people and said, you know, if you'll sign this piece of paper today, we'll give you 70 percent of your insurance money that you're entitled to and it'll all be taken care of.

And they got people to sign those forms and take the money, even though their house was 100 percent gone. And there were other people that showed up and said, you know, you give me your insurance check and I'll get you back in a house really quick. And two or three of them, they took all the insurance checks and left.

SIMON: So, how do you protect yourself?

Mr. JANSSEN: Well, I guess my attitude is that you need to stop and think the thing through. Because if it sounds too good to be true it is. That's an old adage but it's still very true. And if somebody promises something that, you know, even though you really, really want it to happen you know in your heart of hearts that it can't happen, keep your check in your hand.

SIMON: Yeah. John Janssen is the former mayor of Greensburg, Kansas. Thanks so much, sir.

Mr. JANSSEN: Thank you.

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