Archive for Thursday, May 17, 2007

Progress in Greensburg occurring ‘street by street’

May 17, 2007

(Editor's Note: Erin Castaneda, a Kansas University senior, was deployed to Greensburg last week with her Kansas Air National Guard unit to aid in the cleanup from the May 4 tornado. Castaneda is a student in the Community Journalism Class that is working with The World Company this semester).

GREENSBURG - Under a cloudy morning sky while members of my Air National Guard unit picked up debris last week around an elementary school in this ravaged city, I noticed a clock still ticking on a classroom wall. Amid the shattered windows, desks in disarray and missing roof, it served as a reminder that even in the face of disaster, the world doesn't stop.

A teacher stopped by to look at her former classroom at Delmer Day Elementary School. She didn't stay long, saying she'd have to press on.

Many of the residents I saw were doing just that. You could see their resilience in the mud-speckled tattered American flags that flew from tree stubs, in the humorous signs staked in yards and when people with bruised and sunburned arms embraced each other on the streets. The presence of volunteer organizations in Greensburg and neighboring cities proved the residents were not alone in their recovery effort.

On May 8, a long line of residents in their vehicles waited to re-enter their city, each being stopped by police to mark their home address on their windshield.

What you see even from the perimeter of Greensburg is overwhelming. The trees look eerie, all leveled on the top, baring open wounds. The path of the tornado left the business district in a pile of bricks. Vehicles have been squashed. One was a crumpled sheet of metal wrapped around a tree. A fellow Guard member said she saw a girl walking with her father searching for their car which they found teetering on a basement's foundation a few blocks from where they lived. An older man, who said he was rescued in his basement, was fortunate to have two working vehicles removed from his garage. It was interesting to see what items the tornado left untouched, such as a Kleenex box on a teacher's desk.

When our blue bus rolled through the city that was home to 1,400 people, the question in my mind was, "What can we possibly do here in a few days?"

My Guard unit separated wood and metal into piles on public property. Between us we had a few rakes and shovels, two wheel barrows and four power saws. The Army Guard would bulldoze the piles into dump trucks to be burned at a landfill.

The elementary school was our first project. Section by section our progress became evident and in just half a day you could see the muddied grass again. The newly built brick high school down the street was next. It was three stories, but only two remained. The gymnasium floor was smashed against a wall. A table on the front sidewalk held various salvaged plaques, trophies and medals, a few band uniforms laid in a pile.

Across the street, levity could be found in a resident's sign outside his home that read, "For sale, new skylights." Another read, "For sale, open floor plan."

On Wednesday we moved across the train tracks into a corner of the city. We piled debris around the perimeter of each block and cleared streets for the public works department to start utility services. We were not allowed to work on private property, which became a frustration to many of us.

Cleanup first step

But this was just the first step in what will be a long process of recovery. Next for the Guard will be the construction of a medical center.

The support of volunteer organizations was pivotal in the initial emergency relief and will continue to be a tremendous help to individuals. The American Red Cross and Salvation Army drove mobile feed units through the streets serving drinks, snacks and meals three times a day. Some individuals walked around with shopping carts or bags offering bottles of water to everyone. Two women with the Red Cross were yelling out, "free tetanus shots," a necessary precaution with the thousands of nails sticking out of splintered wood.

Ten miles east of Greensburg in the town of Haviland, individuals and the Guard were met with generosity. Several Guard members and Red Cross volunteers stayed in Barclay College dorm rooms, including myself. We also pitched two tents outside for the majority of our group. A block down, a gymnasium housed the Salvation Army Disaster Shelter Relief.

Inside, approximately 10 tables filled half of the gym, each covered with food and other donated items and four bleachers were lined with clothing. A coordinator there said when they set up early Sunday, they served more than 120 families on just two tables of goods. When I was there, four families were meeting with volunteers to discuss what they could do next. I saw others walk in and sit down, as if it was a moment to catch their breath. The coordinator said FEMA was soon going to occupy the other half of the gymnasium.

The hospitality at Barclay College, the town of Haviland and from the Red Cross was encouraging for the Guard and other volunteers and will be needed as the military, volunteers, residents and local government begin to rebuild Greensburg making progress street by street, day by day.

Some individuals walked around with shopping carts or bags offering bottles of water to everyone. Two women with the Red Cross were yelling out, "free tetanus shots," a necessary precaution with the thousands of nails sticking out of splintered wood.

Haviland nerve center

Ten miles east of Greensburg in the town of Haviland, individuals and the Guard were met with generosity. Several Guard members and Red Cross volunteers stayed in Barclay College dorm rooms, including myself. We also pitched two tents outside for the majority of our group. A block down, a gymnasium housed the Salvation Army Disaster Shelter Relief.

Inside, approximately 10 tables filled half of the gym, each covered with food and other donated items and four bleachers were lined with clothing.

A coordinator there said when they set up early Sunday, they served more than 120 families on just two tables of goods. When I was there, four families were meeting with volunteers to discuss what they could do next. I saw others walk in and sit down, as if it was a moment to catch their breath. The coordinator said FEMA was soon going to occupy the other half of the gymnasium.

The hospitality at Barclay College, the town of Haviland and from the Red Cross was encouraging for the Guard and other volunteers and will be needed as the military, volunteers, residents and local government begin to rebuild Greensburg, making progress street by street, day by day.

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