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COLUMN ONE

After the storm, do you fight or falter?

`This is home,' says one Greensburg father who plans to rebuild. But for another family, the tornado's devastation is just too much.

May 15, 2007|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

Greensburg, Kan. — STATE Rep. Dennis McKinney knelt on the concrete slab where his one-story brick home once stood. It's gone.

So is his pickup, part of his wheat crop and a lifetime of family mementos.

"We can rebuild this," said McKinney, 46, a tall, rangy man whose family has worked the land here for four generations. "This is Kansas. This is home."

Ten blocks away, Larry Rogers and his sister Wanda Mott take a break from combing through the remains of their cafe and gift shop, and wearily glance around the once-bucolic downtown.

It looks like someone has taken a giant scythe and cut down the Kiowa County seat. All 1.5 square miles of it.

All but one of the town's 11 local churches have been obliterated. The single-screen movie theater and soda shop? Gone. The police and fire department? The hospital? Destroyed. The schools? Ripped apart. The town's sole stoplight? Lost in the rubble.

For Rogers and Mott, whose parents moved here nearly three decades ago, the loss is overwhelming. The siblings' houses were destroyed, as was the home of Mott's daughter. Their shop, a two-story building known for its collection of antiques and rooms decorated with Christmas merchandise year-round, is a mountain of crumbling brick. Much of that collection -- the candelabras from the 1800s, a velvet fainting couch from the 1930s, the animatronic Santa from a Macy's window display -- is crushed.

Rogers plans to leave. Mott is wavering.

"The town is telling us, 'In two years, Greensburg will be back,' " said Rogers, 47. "Two years? We can't wait two years. If you don't have a job, and you don't have a home, it's over.... All we can do is grieve and move on."

But a tearful Mott doesn't know what to do: "I don't know what to think. I don't know whether I'm staying or going. I barely know what day it is."

In the 10 days since the tornado hit, this southwest Kansas community, once united by faith and family, has begun to splinter. Some, like Rogers, feel hopeless and fear something has been lost forever.

For families like the McKinneys, the disaster only strengthens their belief that Kansans are too stubborn and too tough to let a storm -- even one this devastating -- turn Greensburg into a ghost town.

GREENSBURG was a quiet village in a deeply religious stretch of Kansas, located about two hours west of Wichita. Roadside signs in the town's outskirts asked whether drivers remembered to pray, and Sunday mornings usually generated rush-hour traffic.

Like much of the Midwest, Greensburg's population has been aging. More than a quarter was 65 or older, according to 2000 U.S. census data. The town was also shrinking, as young people left in search of work in urban centers like Wichita and Kansas City, Mo. Its population peaked at about 2,000 in 1960. At the time of the tornado, the town had about 1,400 residents.

Rogers and Mott followed their parents to Greensburg in the 1990s, eager to live in the same town. They soon were charmed by the shady elm and cedar trees, planted when the town was founded in the 1880s, that surrounded modest farmhouses and elegant Victorians.

Greensburg prided itself on being self-sufficient. It owned and operated a power plant. It had its own hospital. The streets were safe: Children could wander at night, and parents could call them to supper by hollering out a kitchen window.

Despite a sluggish economy, there were jobs: Greensburg was home to several oilfield supply companies, and it was also a long-standing hub for wheat and milo farming.

Rogers and Mott embraced the town, named after a flamboyant stagecoach operator, along with its quirky tourist attractions: the world's largest hand-dug well and a 1,000-pound meteorite.

They took over a building that had been a hotel in the 1900s for stagecoach travelers. Main Street Cafe and Candies was part restaurant, part gift shop. It offered ornate flower arrangements for brides, antique hat stands for collectors and hand-painted barn signs for interior decorators looking for a touch of country chic. Business boomed, particularly during the holidays, when shoppers from around the Midwest would wander through the extravagant Christmas exhibits and stock up on candy canes, ornate wreaths and singing Santas.

Rogers said his decision to move came the morning after the storm, when sunlight showed the magnitude of the destruction. How, he thought, could he rebuild both a house and a business?

Sitting on a pile of bricks that had once been the facade of their shop, Rogers and Mott wondered whether federal aid or insurance money could help them restore their business. Perhaps they could scour EBay to replace some of their antiques, or work with other dealers to restock their supply of holiday decor.

"But is anyone going to be around to buy them?" asked Mott, 56. "There are no businesses here. No jobs. No one will have salaries. Who's going to have the money to pay for luxuries?"

Rogers shared those concerns.

"I can't do it," he said. "I don't have the energy to even try to figure out how."

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