Kansas Town at a Post-Tornado Crossroads

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Main Street, Greensburg, Kan. i

Rubble and debris still lines Highway 54, which runs through the middle of Greensburg, Kan. Jason Beaubien, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jason Beaubien, NPR
Main Street, Greensburg, Kan.

Rubble and debris still lines Highway 54, which runs through the middle of Greensburg, Kan.

Jason Beaubien, NPR
Damaged house in Greensburg, Kan. i

One of the few houses left standing in Greensburg after the May 4 tornado is still heavily damaged. Jason Beaubien, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jason Beaubien, NPR
Damaged house in Greensburg, Kan.

One of the few houses left standing in Greensburg after the May 4 tornado is still heavily damaged.

Jason Beaubien, NPR
Cleanup in Greensburg, Kan. i

Despite the removal of hundreds of tons of debris from Greensburg, crews are still working to clean up rubble left over from the tornado. Jason Beaubien, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jason Beaubien, NPR
Cleanup in Greensburg, Kan.

Despite the removal of hundreds of tons of debris from Greensburg, crews are still working to clean up rubble left over from the tornado.

Jason Beaubien, NPR

Two and a half months ago, the city of Greensburg, Kan., was flattened by an F-5 tornado with winds in excess of 200 mph. More than 95 percent of the buildings in Greensburg were destroyed, and all but a handful of the city's 1,500 residents were forced to leave.

As the cleanup continues, residents are starting to trickle back, but things remain extremely difficult for those who want to rebuild.

Backhoes and bulldozers continue to pick through what used to be Greensburg, and while tons of debris have been cleared, the town still has an eerie, post-apocalyptic feel to it. Twisted metal and piles of crumpled cement line the streets. What used to be city blocks of modest homes are now flat expanses of rubble punctuated by empty basements.

Two months after the tornado, electricity has been restored, most of the roads have been cleared, and the city water is back on. But most residents are still living in motels or with friends miles from their town.

Blank Slate or Lost Cause?

Frank Bantry, 77, was born and raised in the area. Remarkably, his house and a few around it were left standing. But Bantry says he doesn't feel lucky.

"I think the ones that blew away are lucky. I wish my house had blowed clear off the foundation," Bantry says. "Then I would have got my money and left."

Bantry's house was damaged in the storm, but his insurance company deemed it fixable. The tornado shattered his windows, driving shards of glass deep into his walls, ceilings and carpet. It tore shingles off his roof, ripped at his siding and overturned his garage where he restored Model-T Fords. It also drove away all of his neighbors.

Bantry says the Greensburg he grew up in is nowhere to be seen.

"Everybody knew everybody," Bantry says. "Whether it'll ever come back to that, I don't know. I can't tell you."

When asked whether he'll stay, Bantry says he doesn't have a choice.

"I can't get rid of that house now. It's not worth nothing."

Before the tornado, Greensburg was a waning farm town, two hours west of Wichita. Truckers heading to Amarillo on Highway 54 stopped there for fuel or coffee. Main Street had a movie theater and some banks, but, like many rural towns, Greensburg was slowly losing population.

Some government officials now talk about the great opportunities ahead for Greensburg. Upbeat planners use the phrase "blank slate" to refer to the empty landscape.

'We Love Living Here'

Christina Thronesbery used to work at the local hospital. She and her family rode out the tornado under a bed in their basement. When they emerged, the basement was all that remained. They have since rented a house about 20 miles away from Greensburg but plan to return soon.

Thronesbery is confident that Greensburg will return as a vibrant small town.

"We love living here," she says.

In a field south of the town, FEMA just opened a trailer park with several hundred white mobile homes. Thronesbery has been issued one of them.

"My mom and sister have tried to convince me to move to Arizona and Colorado, and I said, 'No.' If I wanted to live in a big city, I would have," Thronesbery says.

Life is slowly returning to Greensburg. Green shoots have sprouted on trees that were stripped of their limbs. Government officials have set up shop in pre-fabricated offices near the old courthouse. The post office and several banks are operating out of trailers.

The nearest supermarket is still more than 30 miles away, but a Quick Stop convenience store has returned on Highway 54.

No Time to Wait

Jeff Verset recently re-opened his restaurant in a white canteen trailer parked next to the wreckage of his old restaurant. A sign on the front offers hamburgers, shrimp baskets, fried chicken. Verset has set up a dozen chairs on the cement slab where the restaurant used to stand. He is eager to rebuild, but he says debate and indecisiveness among officials stands in the way.

Soon after the tornado, Greensburg's mayor quit.

Other city officials and FEMA are re-examining and debating every aspect of the town's layout.

Verset says it's time to stop debating.

"A lot of people are leaving who don't got time to wait. People don't have the money to wait around. They've got to work and get a place to live," he says.

The big question hanging over this town is whether people will come back to work and live. Amid all the destruction, residents seem certain about one thing: The Greensburg they once knew was swept away by the tornado.

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