Weather Watch
Ridin’ the storm out
Truckers, residents emerge grateful from EF-5 tornado that demolished Greensburg, KS

By Charlie Morasch
staff writer

First the cab rocked to the left, then to the right. It rocked the green Freightliner so hard Donna Price thought the wheels were being ripped off.

“Here we go,” Donna told husband Larry as the truck and loaded trailer lurched one way.
“Oh God help us,” she cried out as it lifted into the air.

The tornado’s 205-mph winds carried the truck across four lanes of U.S. 54 and slammed it on its driver’s side.

An instant later, the truck went airborne again and dropped on the passenger side, wind shattering the glass.

“Larry, are you OK?” Donna called. Her heart skipped a beat during a brief silence.

“Are you OK, Donna?” Larry called out.

The Prices – team drivers from Lamoni, IA – have been through Greensburg “at least a hundred times.” On Friday, May 4, they were heading to New Mexico when Donna awoke in the sleeper to sirens. They pulled over in Greensburg along with more than a dozen other trucks near U.S. 54 and Main Street.

A few minutes later, the tornado left them uninjured, though firefighters had to pull them out through the windshield of their company truck. Their hair and clothes were covered with sand and dirt.

As the eyes of the world shifted in mid-May to Greensburg and the EF-5 tornado that killed at least 10 people, Land Line focused on the plight of truckers who live and work in the town, previously famous for being home to a 1,000-pound meteorite and the largest hand-dug well.
U.S. 54 is a major trucking route through the heart of Kansas grain arms linking the Midwest and Southwest regions.

Greensburg’s 1,500 population includes dozens of Land Line readers and six OOIDA members. Several are life members.

Hundreds of trucks pass through this town every day, including many like the one driven by Larry and Donna Price, hauling from the Midwest to the Southwest and West Coast.

A number of residents and truckers who lived through the tornado told Land Line they were surprised there were not more deaths and injuries. But, the National Weather Service alerted the town 17 minutes before the horrific 1.7-mile wide vortex roared into town. Sirens screamed for
what seemed like half an hour.

No lights, no sound, in fact, no town

First came the crashing of glass. Moments later, hail rained down before all lights flickered out and an eerie silence filled the pitch-black sky.

As Darrell and Velda Wadel walked out their back porch in rural Greensburg, they realized a demon twister had passed over their farmhouse off of U.S. 183.

The OOIDA life members drove into town and it hit them that there were no lights, no sounds.
In fact, there was no town.

They saw shocked, disheveled neighbors walking sightlessly in the dark. Dogs howled as they scampered through the rubble.

The one-mile by two-mile town appeared to have been systematically flattened in a matter of moments. Familiar buildings and scenes were gone, reduced to debris. Splintered wood, bricks and concrete blocks broke up stretches of tightly-shorn grass and driveways.

In the first days after the storm, the damage hadn’t sunk in for most residents, said Velda, who added that she and Darrell knew some of the residents who died.

“It’s just a mess,” said Velda, pointing to where farmers found dead cattle and where a row of at least 40 utility poles were being replaced by work crews.

Beyond recognition

By Tuesday, May 8, the town looked like a scene from a science fiction movie.

Children stood in front yards as parents used shovels and axes to tear into debris looking for pictures, valuables and clothes. Others climbed down into widely exposed basements now haphazardly furnished with lamps, couches and boxes.

Graffiti marked street names at intersections.

To keep order, police scribbled addresses onto windshields as residents returned to town. Law enforcement and military personnel warned that anyone caught away from the area where they lived would be kicked out. Reporters weren’t allowed to approach residents directly.

Humvees and trucks with camouflaged soldiers wheeled around town and tan military tents neatly lined the Greensburg High School football field. Families piled into the backs of pickup trucks and waved to neighbors before being stopped at checkpoints every few blocks by state troopers and local police.

Helicopters circled overhead every few minutes. Uniformed Army National Guardsmen escorted reporters through town. Eight to 10 news trucks lined Main Street in the designated media area at any given time, with residents requesting videos of broadcasts they didn’t have time, or televisions, to see.

Without access to television, stories and urban legends quickly circulated through neighborhoods by word of mouth. A woman named Roberta said she’d been told by more than one person that she was supposed to be dead.

Residents liked hearing a story about students cleaning up a part of the gymnasium for an impromptu basketball game, though they weren’t sure it was true.

Radio station 1610-AM broadcast monotone announcements of where residents could leave hazardous household materials, obtain water and food, and find lost pets.

By Wednesday, May 9, officials said all missing residents were accounted for.

What’s down the road?

Resident Kenny Smith loaded belongings from his mobile home into his sister’s white Cadillac one day after finding his clothes, photo albums and other mementos damaged by the tornado and rain. Wearing a black “Smith Trucking” ballcap, he fought back tears as he prepared to move from his longtime home.

Kenny – an OOIDA member with 46 years of owner-operator experience – hauls Tyson meats from Olathe, KS, to California and brings produce back to Kansas in his viper red 2005 Peterbilt 379. He stayed in his sleeper during tornado warnings the night after the historic twister. He doesn’t plan on returning to the Greensburg area.

“I’m not coming back to Tornado Alley,” he said.

Smith pointed out the tornado’s ironic balance of destruction.

His Ford F-350 pickup had only two dents and a shattered window while his shed was blown away. The shed’s contents, including a vacuum cleaner, barrels, tires and an electric generator, stayed put.

Smith’s eyes lowered to the ground, and his voice was barely a whisper.

“You’ve seen what it’s done to this town,” he said. “We’ve got nothing. Absolutely nothing.”

Michael and Sharyl Terryn are OOIDA members, too. Damage to their home forced them to move to the family ranch house north of town. Mike, like the others, doesn’t know what’s next.

On Nebraska Street in Greensburg’s south side, Larry Wingfield walked back into his front door with a hot meal from the American Red Cross in one hand and a portable oxygen tank in the other.

“This is the only part of town that’s still standing,” Larry told Land Line.

Parked at the curb was his blue Freightliner Classic tractor with a load of pallets and containers for Dillons Food Stores.

Larry – an OOIDA member – and wife, Barbara, huddled in their basement during the tornado, clutching a mattress for cover. The tornado blew holes through their roof and windows, and dropped their garage on top of their Buick sedan.

The Wingfields might move back after staying with their son in Wichita. But they aren’t sure whether the tornado destroyed enough of Larry’s recently rebuilt truck for it to be totaled out.
“I won’t buy another truck,” Larry told Land Line. “Fuel is too pricey.”

When the killer winds subsided, Larry and Barbara looked out and saw the truck standing, starkly intact against the backdrop of ripped up two-story Victorian homes.

Later, Larry would marvel at the truck’s customized painted fairing that read, “In the arms of angels.”

Hope restored?

Mayor Lonnie McCollum met national and regional reporters for announcements amid piles of bricks and a wind-bent tan minivan draped with an American flag.

Residents would get a new town, promised McCollum, whose house and 1923 pickup were claimed by the storm.

Many of Greensburg’s destroyed homes and buildings were marked with U.S. flags, including a leaning flag pole pulled from the rubble where the post office once stood on Main Street. A white minivan pulled up Tuesday afternoon to deliver a crate of mail.

On Wednesday after the Friday storm, it was raining as President Bush was whisked through town in an armored SUV protected with gun-wielding guards.

Later that day Bush and Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius were joined by U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback for a 15-minute public greeting outside the Kiowa County Courthouse. More than 150 people watched Bush – clad in a white and pink-striped buttondown shirt – hug and shake hands with survivors. He leaned forward and kissed one woman on the forehead.

Jeff Blackburn, a minister at Greensburg Mennonite Church, met early Wednesday with other pastors to plan a non-denominational service for Sunday, May 13. Blackburn said Bush joined the pastors for a brief talk before the group prayed.

Bush seemed compassionate and honest, Blackburn said.

“He was real,” Blackburn said. “It seemed genuine.”

Sebelius told Land Line that truckers would be important to the town’s ability to rebuild.

“They’re key,” Sebelius said. “It’s a critical way to get supplies and services to this part of the state.”

But will there be residents to cater to in Greensburg? Business?

The Wadels, Larry Wingfield, Kenny Smith, the Terryns and others don’t know. But they agree it will be a long time before Greensburg feels like home again.