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Residents of tornado-wracked town eye future

Greensburg tornado aftermath
A sign hangs on a destroyed house in Greensburg, on Tuesday.Larry W. Smith / EPA
/ Source: The Associated Press

For five years, Omero Carrillo worked on his old home, studying period decor, painting and refinishing floors, only to see the tornado that leveled most of this town reduce it to rubble in a moment.

He’s facing the same question nearly everyone here is: Will he rebuild?

“Right now, we don’t know,” he said Tuesday as he sifted through the debris of the first home he ever bought. “We’re not sure of anything right now.”

The Friday night storm left 10 people dead and destroyed more than 90 percent of Greensburg, leaving it a wasteland of stripped trees, downed and splintered utility poles and flattened homes and businesses. The Kiowa County Courthouse and the tallest building in town, the Southern Plains Co-op’s 160-foot grain elevator, were among the few buildings that remained standing.

Although he had to sleep in a friend’s pickup, Mayor Lonnie McCollum was talking heartily about the future, envisioning a town that would look more like a new suburb outside a big city. Outsiders said Greensburg’s status as the Kiowa County seat and a regional economic hub for area farmers make its survival plausible.

“I don’t see this mess. I see what it’s going to be,” said McCollum, a sea of severed trees, crumpled vehicles and wrecked buildings behind him. “Who wouldn’t want to live in a brand new town? Who wouldn’t want to have a business in a whole new town?”

Still, McCollum couldn’t predict when basic services such as sewer, water or electricity would be restored, and officials were trying to find a place for mobile homes sent by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

A dwindling population
Before the storm hit, Greensburg was facing the problem of an aging and declining population, mirroring Midwestern trends. The 2000 census said more than a quarter of its residents were 65 or older; its population peaked at nearly 2,000 in 1960 and has declined to about 1,400.

How much Greensburg recovers depends on the energy its leaders show and the networks — church, social and business — residents have formed, said Bruce Weber, director of Oregon State University’s rural studies program.

At The People’s Bank, Vice President Steve Mills said his four employees will stay on the payroll and the bank will also give them time to work on their own property.

“We will build back here in Greensburg; there is no doubt about that,” Mills said.

Residents of other communities hit hard by past tornadoes wondered how quickly Greensburg would recover.

‘Our Main Street was intact’
In Hoisington, Kan., a 2001 tornado damaged about a third of the town and destroyed its only grocery store. Not only did its owners rebuild their business, they expanded.

But co-owner Randy Deutsch said business owners and investors have to be confident they’ll have customers. He noted that most Hoisington residents still had places to live and work.

“Our Main Street was intact,” he said. “Their question is, ‘How many of our people are going to come back?”’

Insurance payments also will help, and the Kansas Insurance Department reported that adjusters were already writing checks.

Greensburg is likely to see a short-term burst of economic activity from the reconstruction of homes and businesses, said Michael Babcock, an economics professor at Kansas State University.

“The town out there was pretty much depending on agriculture and oil and gas and so forth. I don’t think the tornado changed any of that,” Babcock said. “I can’t think of an example of a town where everybody just walked away and never came back.”