Kansas Town at a Post-Tornado Crossroads The city of Greensburg, Kan., was flattened by an F-5 tornado two months ago. About 95 percent of the buildings were destroyed and most of the town's 1,500 residents were forced to leave. Rebuilding has been slow and difficult.
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Kansas Town at a Post-Tornado Crossroads

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Kansas Town at a Post-Tornado Crossroads

Kansas Town at a Post-Tornado Crossroads

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Well, about two and a half months ago, the city of Greensburg, Kansas was flattened by an F5 tornado. It had winds in excess of 200 mile-per-hour. More than 95 percent of the buildings were destroyed and most of the 1,500 residents were forced to leave. All those numbers don't quite get across the human story. Maybe this will. As the cleanup goes on, residents are trickling back and things remain extremely difficult for those who want to rebuild.

NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.

JASON BEAUBIEN: Backhoes and bulldozers continue to pick through what used to be Greensburg, Kansas. 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, the 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 away from here.

Frank Bantry is 77 years old and was born and raised in this area. Remarkably, his house and a few right around it were left standing. But Bantry says he doesn't feel lucky. Mr. FRANK BANTRY: I think the ones that blew away are lucky. I wish my house would have blown clear off the foundation. Then I would have got my money and left.

BEAUBIEN: Though Bantry's house was damaged in the storm, his insurance company deemed it fixable. The tornado shattered his windows, driving shards of glass deep into his walls, ceiling 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.

Mr. BANTRY: We had a great basketball team, boys and girls. In this small town, everybody knew everybody. And whether it'll ever come back to that or not, I don't know.

BEAUBIEN: You think you're going to stick around?

Mr. BANTRY: I don't have no choice. I can't get rid of the house now. It's not worth nothing.

BEAUBIEN: Before the tornado, Greensburg was a waning farm town, two hours west of Wichita. Truckers heading to Amarillo on Highway 54 would stop here for fuel or coffee. Main Street had a movie theater and some banks. But Greensburg, like many rural towns, was slowly losing population. Some government officials now talk about the great opportunities a head for Greensburg. Upbeat planners used the phrase blank slate to refer to the empty landscape. Resident Christina Thronesbery, who used to work at the local hospital, is confident Greensburg will return as a vibrant small town.

Ms. CHRISTINA THRONESBERY: We love living here. We really do.

BEAUBIEN: Thronesbery 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 are planning to return soon. In a field south to the city, FEMA has just opened a trailer park with several hundred white mobile homes. Thronesbery has been issued one of them.

Ms. THRONESBERY: My mom and my sister have tried to talk me into moving into Arizona and Colorado and I said no. If I wanted to live in a big city, I would have.

BEAUBIEN: Life is slowly returning here. Green shoots have sprouted on trees that were stripped of their limbs. Government officials have set up shop in pre-fab offices near the old courthouse. The post office and several banks are operating out of the trailers. The nearest supermarket is still more than 30 miles away, but a Quick Stop convenience store has returned on Highway 54.

On this afternoon, Jeff Verset is closing the shutters on a white canteen trailer. A sign on the front offers hamburger, shrimp baskets, fried chicken. The trailer is parked next to the wreckage of Verset's old restaurant. He set up a dozen chairs out on the cement slab where the restaurant used to stand.

Mr. JEFF VERSET: We've been open about 10 days. Yeah, we've been pretty busy, but then without anything for a couple of months, you know.

BEAUBIEN: Soon after the disaster, the mayor of Greensburg quit. Other city officials and FEMA are now reexamining and debating every aspect of Greensburg layout. But Verset, who's eager to rebuild, complains city hall is being indecisive and he says it's time to stop debating.

Mr. VERSET: A lot of people are leaving and they haven't got time to wait, you know. People don't have the money to wait around. They've got to work and get a place to live.

BEAUBIEN: The big question hanging over this town is, will people come back to work and live here? Amid all the destruction, residents seem to be clear about one thing, that the town they knew as Greensburg disappeared up into that tornado.

Jason Beaubien, NPR news.

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