How To Rebuild: Advice From One Disaster-Hit City To Another

Host Rachel Martin speaks with John Janssen, who was a City Council member in Greensburg, Kan., when that small town was devastated by a tornado in 2007. He offers his advice for residents of Moore, Okla.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

On May 4, 2007, the small town of Greensburg, Kansas was pounded by a massive tornado. Eleven people died and more than 90 percent of the population was left homeless. But Greensburg did rebuild, and they decided to do it as an energy-efficient community. John Janssen was City Council president at the time. He became mayor soon after the disaster. He joins us on the phone from Greensburg. Welcome to the program, sir.

JOHN JANSSEN: Thank you.

MARTIN: I understand that Moore, Oklahoma is just a three- or four-hour car drive away from where you are. I wonder if you were to travel there what you might communicate to the residents of Moore. What advice?

JANSSEN: Well, they already knew the basic thing that you will live through it. And as I watched the clips, they have repeatedly said somebody greater than them had a hand in it, that God was watching out for them when you look at the population area that was carved up and how few fatalities they actually had relative to the population. And I think the big thing is is face it, you're shell-shocked, and don't make life-altering decisions today while you're shell-shocked. Or if there's a decision you have to make, get someone who was not affected directly by the tornado to come and help you make those decisions. Because you may not think you're screwed up but you are. And don't give your insurance checks away to anybody.

MARTIN: You say thought that immediately after a disaster like this, you need to just not make major decisions. At what point was it OK to get together and talk about how you wanted to rebuild?

JANSSEN: The decision to become green, which was the big all-green decision - I guess it was made for the community maybe more so than by the community - was made about three days after the tornado. You can't wait, because, you know, maybe you can someplace, but I feel like in the Midwest, the people were just too willing to get things back up and on their feet. They're going to fix it, so if you want to give them any guidance you got to start right at the front end. You can't have committee meetings for a year and decide that that's what you're going to do. And so we made that decision early on. And people really got into it. And so, like I said, the other thing that came out - real quick - was that the human nature shysters and water both seek the lowest level. And there were a group of them who came to town to plague people and take their money and run. And basically shysters came in and said, you know, give me your insurance check and I'll have you back in the house in X days. And people handed them their checks. And they got zippo.

MARTIN: It has been six years now since the tornado that hit your town of Greensburg, Kansas. How's it going? What is Greensburg like today?

JANSSEN: I guess what I tend to tell people it's like a really nice new subdivision. You know, we've got a town full of new houses, we've got a small main street, which his basically like a strip mall. It's just a really nice place to live.

MARTIN: Although I have to ask: since everything was rebuilt and you describe a really lovely community now, but it all sounds very new.

JANSSEN: Absolutely. We have very good friends - a matter of fact one couple in particular, that they basically do not come back to town because it's not the Greensburg that they knew from, well, like Bill's, what, pushing 90. So, I mean, he had known this community for, well, you know, a better part of a century and it's just not home to him because it's a new Greensburg. And I can't argue with anybody. It's not the one that was there before the tornado.

MARTIN: John Janssen is the former mayor of Greensburg, Kansas. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

JANSSEN: Thank you very much. I hope it's helpful.

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