On the evening of May 4, 2007, a tornado of unmatched ferocity tore through the small Kansas town of Greensburg, leaving little but devastation in its wake. In the ten years since, the people of Greensburg have demonstrated the sort of resiliency, hard work and commitment to hope that embodies not only the American spirit, but its commitment to excellence. Rebuilding their town from scratch, Greensburg has become more than a success story of sustainability and forward-thinking—it has become a symbol of the future of the eco-friendly lifestyle.
Green Town U.S.A. was published in 2013 recounting Greensburg’s story. It’s a story of hope and opportunity in the face of obstacles and difficulties providing real-world proving ground for sustainable solutions which many towns around the world have similarly implemented in the years since.
In tribute for the 10th anniversary of the tornado that changed Greensburg forever, we present the entirety of Chapter 1 of Green Town U.S.A below.
“Greensburg is the liveliest town in the state today, for money, marbles or watermelons.”
—Kiowa County Signal, June 1, 1888
In 2007, Greensburg, Kansas celebrated its 121st anniversary.
Officially established in 1886—the same year Governor John Martin organized Kiowa County, of which it would be the county seat—Greensburg was named for legendary stage coach driver Donald R. “Cannonball” Green, who helped found it.
Before railroads crisscrossed the prairie, Green’s “Cannonball” stageline ran from Kingman, to Pratt, to Coldwater, and then on to Greensburg. This Cannonball Highway would eventually extend into Oklahoma, and now forms the backbone of U.S.
Route 54—“Kansas Avenue” in these parts—which still links the towns served by Green’s stage coaches. In fact, the Kansas Legislature specifically designated the roughly 60-mile stretch of Route 54 from Kingman to Greensburg as “Cannonball Stageline Highway” in 1996.
When the railroads came to Kiowa County, threatening Green’s stage line, he moved on to become the county’s first representative in the Kansas legislature, and Greensburg reinvented itself as an indispensable stop on the rails. Much as they needed coal, early locomotives engines needed water for steam, and Greensburg was there to supply it. Greensburg began work on its Big Well in 1887. It took more than a year of daily digging and hauling for workers to finish what it soon billed as the world’s largest hand-dug well, bottoming out at 109 feet deep and 32 feet wide. The Big Well supplied the two major lines: the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway and the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad. The town also provided water freely to residents, an almost irresistible amenity that kept throats wet, made street trees possible, and offered an important hedge against the threat of fires.
By the early twentieth century, Greensburg was shipping out large amounts of grain and livestock. The streets were paved in 1914. When the Great Plains were reduced to the Dust Bowl during the “Dirty Thirties,” Greensburg reinvented the Big Well, which had been closed since 1932, as a tourist attraction on Settlers’ Day in 1939. The post-WWII boom in farming technologies—including synthetic fertilizers, electric-powered irrigation, and mechanization—revived crop farming in Kiowa County, which had largely reverted to pastureland for livestock after early agriculture left the soil depleted. To this day, the most notable skyline on the stretch of Route 54 that passes through Greensburg are the hulking white grain elevators that line the rail lines just north of Route 54, each visible several miles away from the last.
Greensburg’s population hit its twentieth century peak of 1,988 residents in 1960, and then began declining, in part because agriculture per farmer had become so productive that there were fewer jobs available in the sector. Softening the blow of declining agriculture jobs, however, was a booming growth in another sector—hydrocarbons.
Oil and gas exploration throughout the 1970s and 1980s resulted in productive wells, today numbering 30, throughout Kiowa County. Greensburg’s population continued to decline, but not so quickly as would other rural communities less abundantly blessed with natural and cultural resources.
By 2007, generations of Greensburg residents had created something special over the preceding 12 decades: some 80 square blocks of housing, business, and community space that marked their place in the endless Kansas prairie. It was a place whose residents worshiped in nine local congregations, shopped at the local Dillons grocery store, and picked up their prescriptions—and the local gossip—at Hunter Drug, a local pharmacy complete with a 1950s-era soda fountain. Broad, tree-lined streets welcomed residents and visitors alike, and three times a year, parades marched down the historic Main Street with combines and other equipment used in the farming that helped build Greensburg. The city rallied around its high school Rangers, all the more precious in light of the fact that Greensburg, as with so many other small Heartland communities, had been slowly depopulating for decades. Still, 121 years on, Greensburg had become a community rich in history, faith, and resources: the perfect embodiment of Kansas’s state song: “Home on the Range”.
It would be destroyed in less than 9 minutes.
A Destination on the High Plains
Within five years of the opening of the Big Well to tourists, Greensburg was well on its way as a tourist destination—so much so, that the secretary of the Greensburg Chamber of Commerce declared in the Kiowa County Signal of May 24, 1941:
Our town is the envy of every city and town in Kansas. We have been praised and publicized for the promotion job on this attraction. And there are benefits to be derived from our efforts. . . the time spent by tourists in a town is worth about $5.00 per hour. . . a total of 50,000 tourists during a season means a lot to Greensburg.
Through the end of 2012, in fact, the Big Well had attracted over 3 million visitors—a bit more than 40,000 per year. Yet the Big Well was not all that drew tourists to Greensburg. Another attraction is the “Space Wanderer,” a 1,000 pound chunk of a meteor whose exploded fragments punctured the fields of Kiowa County about 10,000 years ago near what would later become Brenham, Kansas. The Brenham meteorite was a rare “pallasite” variety, composed of both rocky material (olivine crystals) and metal (iron and nickel). Native Americans knew of this mysterious rock, and worked its fragments into tools and decorative items that have been found as far as 1,000 miles away. Early homesteaders in Kiowa County found fragments, too: annoying chunks of metal that bent plow blades in otherwise rock-free fields.
One early homesteader from Iowa, Eliza Kelly, began collecting the rocks in 1882, convinced that they were meteorites like the ones she had seen as a schoolgirl. She stubbornly persisted in this belief, despite teasing, and eventually convinced a professor from Washburn University in Topeka to take a look. His excitement convinced a scientist from the American Museum of Natural History in New York to visit and collect more pieces.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Harvey H. Nininger, then perhaps the most famous meteorite hunter in the world, collected even more fragments. Then, in 1949, a collector named H. O. Stockwell found the “Space Wanderer” while using a modified mine detector from World War II. That same year, it was housed at the Big Well, where it was billed as the “World’s Largest Pallasite Meteorite”—though, even at the time, it might only have been the largest found in the United States. A larger fragment of the Brenham meteorite has since been found.
Unlike tropical cyclones—usually known as hurricanes in the Americas, and typhoons elsewhere—tornadoes are not named in advance. Cyclones evolve from tropical depressions that meteorologists can often track hundreds, or even thousands, of miles away from land, and days before they strengthen into a hurricane or typhoon—if they do at all.
With the advent of modern technology, tropical cyclones have become a game of anticipation, a meteorological striptease. People along the coast watch the latest forecast cone, resembling a bloated comma, to gauge where the cyclone will make landfall, when it will hit, and how powerful it will be—all within a reasonable margin of error. They’re so predictable, relatively speaking, that the National Weather Service readies a list of names for them in advance, starting with A—alternating between years with girls’ names (such as Katrina) and those with boys’ (such as Andrew).
For all its devastation, “Superstorm” Sandy provided a perfect example of how relatively predictable hurricanes are in comparison to tornadoes, and just how advanced the state of meteorology has become. The National Weather Service (NWS) began tracking a disturbed weather system south of Hispaniola, the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic, on October 20, 2012. After it moved west and strengthened south of Jamaica, NWS designated the tropical storm “Sandy,” the eighteenth named storm of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season. By 8pm on October 25—when Sandy was still tucked in between Jamaica and Cuba—computer modeling suggested a strong chance that it would eventually make landfall around Delaware or southern New Jersey, roughly 1,400 miles north and slightly east. The U.S. East Coast hunkered down, and Sandy arrived on target almost exactly 96 hours later.
Tornadoes are completely different animals. They are poorly understood, but typically correlate with “supercells,” rotating thunderstorms with a well-defined vortex called a mesocyclone. Supercells can spawn dozens of tornadoes—lasting from a few seconds, to over an hour. They virtually wink in and out of existence during these weather patterns. Which is not to say they’re weak; on the contrary, tornado wind speeds can exceed 200 miles per hour—equivalent to what would be a category 6 hurricane. In fact, while the Saffir–Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale measures the potential for damage based on wind speeds, the Enhanced Fujita scale used for tornadoes does just the opposite: it estimates the wind speeds based on how much damage a tornado has done. So, in an almost perverse twist, the dubious honor of naming tornadoes often falls to that which they destroy—such as the 1899 New Richmond Tornado (Wisconsin), the 1918 Tyler Tornado (Minnesota), 1930 Tupelo Tornado (Mississippi), or the 1970 Lubbock Tornado (Texas).
As these names suggest, the vast majority of tornadoes occur in North America. And the vast majority of these occur in Tornado Alley (see “Tornado Alley,” page 12) which is generally understood to run from northwestern Texas up through southeastern South Dakota, with Kansas roughly in the middle. From 1991 to 2010, an average of 96 tornadoes hit Kansas every year—almost 8 percent of the national total, a higher rate than any other state except for far-larger Texas. Thus, Kansans are no strangers to storm sirens, drills, and shelters. Yet, as of the morning of May 4, 2007, no major tornado had wreaked havoc on the Sunflower State since the Plains Tornado Outbreak of 1991, which spawned 55 tornadoes from Texas north through Iowa, killing two dozen people—17 of them in and around Andover, Kansas, which was razed by an F5 tornado.
Greensburg still sounded its tornado siren four times per day (7 a.m., 12 p.m., 1 p.m., and 6 p.m.), but this had become a way to mark the hours—like church bells or an old-time factory whistle—rather than to keep folks on their guard. In fact, it might have done just the opposite, signaling the threat of tornadoes as, in a sense, background noise—something that occurred with some frequency within southwestern Kansas, but seldom so close to Greensburg, and never so severely.
The United States has far more tornadoes per year than any other country—about 1,200. The second greatest number occurs in Canada—a larger country—and only totals about 100 per year.
Why so many in the United States?
The United States is simply the only place where all the main ingredients favoring tornado formation coincide. One ingredient is being in the middle latitudes, the bands of Earth between the tropics and the Arctic or Antarctic Circles. These bands are the regions where cold, dry, polar air can meet warm, moist, subtropical air. Europe and Asia are also in middle latitudes, and have just a fraction of the tornadoes. Yet they also have something the United States lacks: east-west mountain ranges that help block the mingling of cold air from the north and warm air from the south. That lack of east-west mountains is a second ingredient. In North America, there’s a clear land passage from the Arctic right down to the Gulf of Mexico between the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachian Mountains, both of which run north-south.
And, indeed, the Rocky Mountains play an important role in the third ingredient: an eastward moving cold front meeting warm, moist air. Cold air from the Rockies flows eastward along the Plains, meeting the humid air heading north from the Gulf. That gives rise to the kind of powerful thunderstorms that birth tornadoes in “Tornado Alley,” an area of the central United States, with Kansas near the middle.
A smaller but still significant focus of tornadoes in the United States is “Dixie Alley,” right above the Gulf Coast. Dixie Alley tornadoes tend to happen in late fall—whereas Tornado Alley’s tend to concentrate in spring and summer—and recent research indicates that Dixie Alley may have a higher rate of long-track powerful tornadoes (EF3+), even if it has fewer tornadoes in total.
Kansas may have gotten lucky since 1991, but it had not let down its guard. This was fortunate: just before 9 p.m. on May 4, 2007, a supercell that would eventually produce 20 tornadoes—including four large ones—spawned a tornado in Comanche County, just south of Kiowa County. National Weather Service (NWS) meteorologists in Dodge City first warned about the tornado at 8:55 p.m. At 9:19 p.m., the NWS issued a tornado warning for Kiowa County as it tracked a “large and extremely dangerous tornado” 14 miles south of Greensburg and 11 miles northwest of Wilmore—and warned that it could strike Greensburg. Local television stations broadcast warnings. By 9:36, NWS’s update included an even more dire warning: “PORTIONS OF GREENSBURG APPEAR TO BE IN THE DIRECT PATH OF THIS TORNADO!! TAKE SHELTER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU ARE IN GREENSBURG!!”
Roughly nine minutes later, the EF-5 tornado thereafter known as the Greensburg Tornado (2007), would enter its eponymous town from the southwest.
Paging Dr. Tornado
Charles Richter’s name may always be linked to the logarithmic yardstick for measuring earthquakes, though he collaborated on it with Beno Gutenberg. Messrs. Saffir and Simpson both get credit for the eponymous Hurricane scale they developed, although its most recent incarnation—the Saffir–Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale—actually removes much of Simpson’s contributions.
With tornadoes, the name of the game is Tetsuya Fujita, often credited alone (Fujita Scale), sometimes with his collaborator Allen Pearson (Fujita-Pearson Scale), and most recently in a new-and-improved version: Enhanced Fujita Scale. Professor “Ted” Fujita’s lifelong interest in severe weather resulted in other discoveries, including the “downburst,” a violent downward rush of air that sends dangerous wind blasts in all directions when striking the ground, like water from a fire hose hitting a wall. He identified a downburst as the cause of the crash of an Eastern Airlines flight in 1975, in part because it reminded him of the atomic blast patterns in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which the Japanese government had sent him to investigate during the war.
But “Dr. Tornado” remains most famous for the scale he devised. Both the original and enhanced versions of the Fujita scale use physical damage as a proxy for wind speed, rated from 0 (Gale) up to 5 (Incredible)—an awe-inspiring step, when you consider that the descriptor for 4 is “Devastating.” The Wind Science and Engineering Research Center at Texas Tech University and the National Weather Service spent four years improving damage indicators and data collection methods to produce a more evidence-based Enhanced Fujita (EF) scale, true to the original, but with more accurate wind speed estimates.
And those speeds are significant:
EF0: 65–85 mph (remember, tropical storms become hurricanes at just 74 mph)
EF1: 86–110 mph
EF2: 111–135 mph
EF3: 136–165 mph
EF4: 166–200 mph
EF5: > 200 mph
The United States adopted the Enhanced Fujita scale in February 2007, and the first official EF5 tornado hit just three months later in a small city in Kansas named Greensburg. As of January 2013, there had been just seven EF5 tornadoes in the United States since.
With the NWS warning at 9:19 p.m., the tornado sirens began to blare. Though standard practice was to shut off the sirens after 5 minutes, Ray Stegman, a storm spotter and former sheriff who had glimpsed the tornado from out of town, radioed the police with an ominous warning: “Leave the siren on. Leave it on as long as you can.” And it was left on until the tornado ripped it from its perch or destroyed the city’s power substation, depending on whom you ask.
From siren to cyclone, residents of Greensburg had just 26 minutes to prepare themselves for the worst. For the first time, Kiowa County Hospital’s practiced new storm drill was for real, moving all the patients, staff, and visitors to the basement, rather than the concrete-beam reinforced corridors that had served as the official storm shelters until just three years earlier. It was a fortunate change in plans: the corridors would be destroyed.
Lois Morehead, a part-time employee at the local Best Western in Greensburg who perhaps knew more than most what was coming—she also worked as a dispatcher for the Kiowa County sheriff—ushered guests into the motel’s storm shelter. Then she went to the Best Western’s competitor, a motel without a storm shelter, and ushered them to safety in the Best Western’s basement. She even directed travelers on Route 54 to the storm shelter. Both motels would be totaled, but no one suffered significant injury thanks to Morehead’s bravery and presence of mind.
Proud to Be Kansans
On January 28, 2008, the Kansas House of Representatives presented Lois Morehead with a house certificate and publicly acknowledged her service at the recommendation of Lonnie McCollum, the mayor of Greensburg when the tornado hit, and a former Kansas Highway Patrol superintendent. The proclamation about Morehead, recorded in the Journal of the House, reads in part:
Lois encountered one guest who was disabled and could not go to the basement. She directed this guest and her husband to the safest area in their room and told them not to move until she came back.
After securing all of the guests, Lois was locking the motel’s office when the tornado struck. She rode out the storm on the floor of the office in front of, not behind, the check-in counter. As debris fell on her, the glass around her and the roof above her were blown away. When it was over, only a header beam remained above her and most of the walls around her were gone.
Shaking off the debris, Lois quickly accounted for all of her guests, enlisted help from the motel basement, and told these helpers to find the disabled woman and her husband. They found them in the only room remaining with walls in the only safe place in the room, unharmed.
Lois then herded the guests into the area next to the office, found no severe injuries, and moved the ones who could walk to the triage center in the Dillons parking lot. Because of Lois’s leadership, no guest suffered significant injury.
Because she was scheduled for duty, the next day Lois showed up for work at the command center. She was assigned to help the Kansas Bureau of Investigation with the unenviable task of identifying bodies of the victims and notifying next of kin. Her help in this role proved priceless as Lois knows everyone and everyone knows Lois in Kiowa County.
Lois suffered a cut to her hand. She rebuffed friendly suggestions that she go to the doctor. Finally, upon direct orders from Sheriff Marble, she went to the hospital to have a serious infection treated…please join me in saying thank you to a Kansan who has demonstrated bravery and courage in the face of danger and a commitment to public service that has set an example for all of us and makes us proud to be Kansans.
Quick thinking by staff at the hospital and by Lois Morehead at the Best Western together saved well over a hundred people from serious injury or death. But the same actions were repeated on a smaller scale throughout Greensburg, as neighbor helped neighbor, and people sought shelter wherever they could, whether in basement, or closet, or even just a sturdy bathtub.
After the tornado siren sounded, Matt Deighton invited his brother-in-law’s mother and his neighbors the Kilgores to join him, his elderly mother, and his Dalmatian, Molly, at his house. They, too, wondered how serious the warning was, and what might be in store for them. Deighton walked around his house, assessing it, frequently looking in vain for a glimpse of the tornado to the southwest. Then lightning struck, and he saw it: black as night, “brick and mortar all the way from heaven to hell.”
It was a wedge tornado. That means something to people in Kansas. Most of us outside of Tornado Alley probably hear “tornado” and envision the classic “stacked plates” image of a tall, narrow funnel cloud, but a wedge tornado—sometimes called a “stovepipe”—appears cylindrical, and wider than it is tall. This one was enormous, an estimated 1.7 miles wide, like a giant black menacing cloud. Several witnesses later reported having seen smaller funnel clouds dancing before it.
Deighton and his group quickly decided to move to the basement at the home of their neighbors, the Engelkens. The Engelkens’s home had been built in the 1960s by the survivor of a 1926 tornado, who had the foresight to build a basement topped with a concrete subfloor beneath her ranch-style house. Once everyone was settled, Deighton ran back to his house to get his driver’s license and his mother’s medications. The sky looked ominous. Deighton poured himself a highball, toasted the house he’d grown up in, and ran back across the street through a barrage of hailstones to the Engelkens’s with four or five minutes to spare.
Bob and Ruth Ann Wedel were at home in their house, right on the southwest corner of town, about as near to the tornado as one could get. As Bob had done many times during tornado warnings, he sat looking south over the adjacent wheat field, trying to glimpse something in the darkness to decide whether he and Ruth Ann should actually go into the basement or not bother this time. He got a good look at the tornado when lightning struck.
They bothered. As Ruth Ann puts it, they made it to the basement with just enough time “to hold hands and start praying.”
Scott Eller, meanwhile, was in the midst of teasing his daughters. They were holed up with the family beagle in an interior bedroom closet, since the Ellers owned a cellarless home built on a slab. Eller was standing outside the closet, good-naturedly razzing his daughters for their caution. Then one daughter’s ears popped, and she said “Dad, maybe you’d better get inside.” His ears popped, too, and he got in—at least as well as he could. Eller, a big man, had to leave his legs extending out the small closet door. Soon came a noise like a jet engine, the house began “a-bumping and a-jumping,” as Eller puts it, and water began infiltrating his home.
For most of the people in Greensburg, it was the start of eight minutes of screamingly loud, earth-shaking hell.
To continue reading, please purchase Green Town U.S.A. wherever books are sold. Also available as an eBook.
To learn more about Greensburg, please visit www.greensburgks.org.