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Bush hails recovery, resilience of Kansas town

President Bush on Sunday hailed the resilience of Greensburg, Kan., and its tiny high school graduating class, one year after a tornado barreled through with astonishing fury.
U.S. President Bush takes part in graduation ceremony at Greensburg High School in Greensburg, Kansas
U.S. President George W. Bush takes part in a graduation ceremony at Greensburg High School in Greensburg, Kansas, Sunday May 4. A Category 5 tornado devastated the town a year ago.Jim Young / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

President Bush hailed the resilience of this town and its tiny high school graduating class Sunday, one year after a tornado barreled through with astonishing fury.

Never before had Bush delivered a commencement address at a high school, and his presence was meant to reflect how far Greensburg has come. From nearly total devastation last May 4, this town is recovering, and hope has been rekindled.

At the center of attention is the Class of 2008 — 10 boys and eight girls. They finished their senior year at a makeshift campus of trailers.

"We celebrate the resurgence of a town that stood tall when its buildings and homes were laid low," Bush said in his remarks at the temporary high school gym.

"We celebrate the power of faith, the love of family and the bonds of friendship that guided you through the disaster," Bush said. "And we celebrate the resilience of 18 seniors who grew closer together when the world around them blew apart."

Bush said the graduating class has sent a powerful message to the nation: "Greensburg, Kansas, is back and its best days are ahead."

Worst tornado in years
The tornado that flattened Greensburg was the worst in the United States in years. It raged at 205 mph, spanned more than a mile and a half and killed 11 people.

From the ruins, it was hard to tell what had stood before. Bush visited five days after the storm, when he walked through the gnarled mess and handed out hugs.

An estimated 95 percent of the town was leveled. No more schools, city hall, fire department or power plant. More than 900 homes were destroyed. What was left looked eerie, with cars planted into crumpled structures and trees stripped of all their limbs.

Bush told the students Sunday that they had learned a hard lesson of perseverance.

He compared their resolve to that shown by victims of other disasters, including the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the string of hurricanes, floods and fires during his terms.

"The lessons that you have learned in this town will give you the strength to rise above any obstacle in your path," Bush said. "You have seen life at its most difficult. You have emerged stronger from it."

Bush personally handed a diploma to each graduate.

Whole town turned out
The ceremony drew essentially the whole town, and then some, into a temporary warehouse-style structure. An estimated 900 people packed in, although the total appeared to easily top that, including alumni of the school and officials from around the state.

Bush was welcomed warmly into town. People holding American flags flanked the roadside.

Leaders of the graduating class thanked Bush for coming, and spoke with optimism.

"We couldn't control what happened a year ago," said the co-valedictorian, Cassie Blackburn. "We were thrown off course, but we recovered."

Greensburg's resilience has drawn raves.

Homes are popping up, businesses are reopening and a new water tower symbolically stands tall. The population is down from its pre-tornado total of 1,400, but rising.

Rather than rebuild in traditional ways, the city is re-engineering itself as a model of energy efficiency. The new green in Greensburg means the place is being built to run on clean energy, including, of all things, wind power.

The high school boys' basketball team was forced to play every one of its games on the road. It responded by making it to the state tournament for the first time in 30 years.

More than $62 million for rebuilding
Presidential empathy in times of disaster is a tradition that long predates Bush. It comes naturally to Bush, but residents also want firm help along with hugs and nice words.

The White House noted in advance of Bush's trip that the federal government has funneled more than $62 million to help Greensburg's rebuilding. Bush underscored the point Sunday, saying, "The federal government will honor its commitments, and stand by you."

Such words have taken on more meaning since the failed federal response to Hurricane Katrina, which stunned the nation and hurt Bush's standing. The government has rallied to show a faster, more aggressive reaction to disasters over the last few years.

Bush thanked the graduates for changing the date of their big day to accommodate him. The commencement had been set for May 10, when his daughter Jenna is getting married.

"I could have suggested changing the date of the wedding instead," Bush said wryly, "but I think we all know how that idea would have turned out."