Posted by: pyeager | November 21, 2009

Greensburg Rises From the Rubble

I recently saw an story, How an Entire Town Leveled By a Tornado is Rebuilding Green, about the rebirth of Greensburg, Kansas. It tells a remarkable story of optimism, recovery, and dedication to a single goal.

That’s why I thought it would be good to talk about the Greensburg tornado now.


If there were one tornado that best symbolizes the way in which a tornado can change life forever, it would be the tornado that destroyed Greensburg, Kansas, on May 4, 2007. And if there’s one story that represents the ability of people to recover from disaster, it’s what’s going on in Greensburg, Kansas, today.

Greensburg History

Greensburg, a small town (only 1.5 square miles) on the farming plains of the southwestern part of the state, was first established in 1886, and it was best known for being the home of the world’s largest hand-dug well. The “Big Well,” 109 feet deep and 32 feet wide, was used as the town’s water supply from 1887 until 1932 and was a major tourist attraction for decades.

Spring in Kansas

Spring is often a dramatic weather time in the Plains, with the building warmth of the upcoming summer competing with the winter cold that is sometimes unwilling to release its grip. This contrast often results in numerous rounds of dangerous thunderstorms, and 2007 was a spring with frequent dangerous storms.

May 4, 2007

Even though May 2007 began without much weather fanfare (after multiple late-winter and early spring tornadoes), a strong late-season storm along the West Coast grabbed the attention of meteorologists. On Friday, May 4, the strengthening spring sun pushed temperatures into the middle 80s in Greensburg, and while the warmth was undoubtedly appreciated, there was an understanding that the warm, humid air mass in combination with the approaching storm would result in dangerous thunderstorms and perhaps tornadoes.

The Tornado

A supercell thunderstorm that had already produced tornadoes in the extreme western part of Kansas approached Greensburg, and at 9:20 p.m., a rapidly intensifying tornado was spotted to the southwest of Greensburg. The National Weather Service issued something called a Tornado Emergency, which is an enhanced tornado warning issued when a violent tornado is headed for a populated area. The intention is to warn residents of Greensburg an immediate, extreme threat.

An EF5 tornado (the strongest category) estimated to be nearly two miles wide (remember–the town was 1.5 miles wide) arrived on the western end of town just before 9:45 p.m. Buildings were no match for the power of the tornado; structures that were not completely blown away were scattered into piles of unrecognizable wreckage. The swirling debris cloud that is associated with a tornado was filled with what had been Greensburg Kansas–two-by-fours, metal plumbing pipes, sofas, broken glass, and everything else became projectiles, projectiles with such force that they would become embedded in any object that they hit.

Two-ton automobiles were lifted from driveways and dumped into crumpled piles hundreds of feet away, railroad cars were overturned, and any trees left standing were stripped of their leaves and bark. Approximately 95% of the town was destroyed.


Greensburg, Kansas, after the tornado

White House photograph of Greensburg, Kansas, after the tornado

Residents who climbed out of storm cellars felt as if they had been transported to another place or time, unable to discern where their homes had been and which direction was West. Even in the black of night, it was clear that everything was gone. They knew that they were standing on their property, but there were no longer homes or any other buildings on the street. Stores that they’d gone to for years were gone. Neighbors that they had talked to hours earlier may have been missing, perhaps safely hiding a cellar or trapped under a pile of debris—or perhaps dead.

According to the 2000 Census, eleven out of the 1,154 residents had been killed, dozens had been injured, and the town was gone. Anyone who wants to understand the power and danger of tornadoes need look no further than Greensburg, Kansas. Life will never be the same.

–Paul Yeager

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