When a tornado ripped through this south-central Kansas community, city administrator Steve Hewitt’s home was destroyed and his family was forced to live elsewhere.
Hours later, he also learned that his city was torn apart — hardly any of its homes and businesses were still standing. So instead of dwelling on his own losses, he huddled with department heads and created a plan of action.
Since the 1.7-mile-wide tornado nearly wiped the community off the map Friday, Hewitt has been at the center of recovery efforts. He’ll be in charge of much of the rebuilding process. Residents say by putting the town first, he’s stepped up to the challenge.
“That’s exactly what a leader should do,” said Rep. Dennis McKinney, a state lawmaker who lives in the town and saw Hewitt Friday night, hours after the tornado struck. “He’s got them on a mission. He’s calm, he’s analytical and he’s got his team focused.”
As the town’s highest non-elected public official, Hewitt is in charge of day-to-day operations. Only in the position for a year, he has a background in parks and recreation.
Hewitt will be responsible for making sure the city’s infrastructure and services are rebuilt in the months ahead, and he’ll be coordinating with state and federal agencies. Colleagues say since the tornado hit, he’s constantly been on the phone with state and federal emergency management agencies.
“He has been tireless,” said Maj. Gen. Tod Bunting, the state’s adjutant general and its director of emergency management. “We’re doing all we can to help him. We keep telling him, ’Steve, there’s a couple of places where you can lie down if you want to take a nap. We’ll be quiet for you.”’
Hewitt hasn’t talked much about his own losses, or how his family, who is now staying in a remote location, will recover. Instead, he’s talked about the community — and his strong faith that it will recover.
“We want everybody to know, and I plead to the American people as well as the people here in Kansas, this is a huge catastrophe that has happened to our small town,” Hewitt said at a news conference Saturday.
“We’ll rebuild,” he said. “It’ll take time, but we’ll rebuild this city.”
'I am just like anybody'
Even before the storm, local officials say, Hewitt established a reputation for active leadership and community improvement. Though that leadership will be tested in the coming months, federal officials say that strong leadership can play a critical role during a crisis.
“Good leadership is absolutely critical,” said Dick Hainje, a regional administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “Someone has to step forward and say to the people that there has been a disaster, but there’s a plan being developed.”
Hewitt stayed mostly behind the scenes Sunday, speaking only briefly at a news conference as he focused on the recovery effort. But when he did, he repeated what he’s said all along — his own losses aren’t extraordinary.
“I am just like anybody,” he said. “I am no different than anybody else. A lot of people had worse losses than we did.”