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Bush visits a town torn, then reborn

Greensburg, Kan., was nearly leveled a year ago. It's rebuilding now, with a focus on environmentalism.

May 05, 2008|James Gerstenzang | Times Staff Writer

GREENSBURG, KAN. — Alvin Hewitt was the first baby born at Kiowa County Memorial Hospital after it opened in 1950.

Today, the hospital is gone. So are the red brick high school, the single-screen movie theater, the soda shop, City Hall, the county courthouse. Like 95% of this little town on the prairies of southwest Kansas, they were destroyed by a tornado that struck a year ago Sunday, killing 11.

Hewitt could have taken his insurance check and moved away, as about half the town's residents did. He didn't.

On the first anniversary of the storm, President Bush returned to Greensburg to celebrate its "yearlong journey from tragedy to triumph" as exemplified by the stubborn determination of a town full of Alvin Hewitts: hundreds of people who refused to simply salvage what they could and then drive away from the rubble, all 45,000 truckloads of it. By the estimate of state Democratic House Leader Dennis McKinney, at least half of the 1,400 residents remained. They are rebuilding the town, gamely turning Greensburg green -- figuratively and literally.

The town, founded in 1886 and named for a 19th-century stagecoach driver, D.R. "Cannonball" Green, is rising again, built this time with a raft of energy-saving measures incorporated in the designs. Wind turbines and solar panels are contributing power. Native grasses are being planted to lessen the need for water.

A quick ride through Greensburg suggests the distance it still has to travel. Entire city blocks are barren but for an occasional elm -- most branches stripped away, but green shoots appearing with the spring. The schools are a collection of double-wide trailers used as classrooms.

Where the theater stood, there's a jumble of bricks and timber. But a few blocks beyond, just south of the town's lone traffic light, single-story townhomes are taking shape.

'Laid low,' it 'stood tall'

The president, who toured the destruction soon after the tornado struck, returned Sunday to speak at the graduation of Greensburg High School's 18 seniors -- advanced a week to accommodate his schedule -- and found in the town's reemergence from "the tornado that forever changed your lives" a lesson for the broader American community.

"The Greensburg class of 2008 has learned that Americans will always rebuild stronger and better than before. Often in life, you're dealt a hand that you did not expect. The test of a community -- and the test of an individual -- is how you play the hand," said Bush, who gave each student a handshake and a diploma.

Most of the town, and perhaps more, turned out for the celebration: At least 800 people filled the folding chairs in the metal-siding gymnasium, and others watched on a screen in the sunshine just beyond the doors.

"The dark clouds from one year ago have parted and have made way for a brighter future," Bush said, calling Greensburg "a town that stood tall when its buildings and homes were laid low."

School and church define much of the life here, typical of this part of Kansas, about 100 miles west of Wichita. Before the tornado leveled all but one of the 11 churches, rush hour was Sunday morning.

With its own power plant, hospital, schools, oil-field supply companies and John Deere and GM dealerships, Greensburg was largely self-sufficient. It even had two tourist attractions, the world's largest hand-dug well and a 1,000-pound meteorite. But when a tornado with winds of 200 mph and a funnel 1.7 miles wide struck at 9:45 p.m. on May 4, 2007, it took only 10 minutes to level the 1 1/2 -square-mile town, the National Weather Service estimated.

For weeks, the modest farmhouses and elegant Victorians, the police station and the firehouse, and all the other detritus that could be picked up and hauled away, burned in a landfill outside of town.

"I was leery about building back. It was so devastating. There was so much cleanup. There was just no hope of getting things back to normal," Hewitt said.

But, he recalled, his son, Steve, the town administrator, "said this is a total opportunity for us to start over."

And so Alvin Hewitt, who has worked for 37 years at a natural gas pumping station operated by Panhandle Eastern Pipeline Co., used his insurance settlement -- $180,000, he said -- to replace his destroyed two-story home with a one-story, 2,100-square-foot house with extra insulation in the walls, windows built to resist the prairie winds, and heating pipes using recycled water and built into the foundation's concrete to keep the basement warm.

Saluting the community's recognition of "an opportunity to rebuild with a free hand and a clean slate," Bush said the government would support the effort to put "the 'green' in Greensburg" as the town worked toward a future "where the beauty of rural America meets the great possibilities of new technology."

'We're capitalists'

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