A walk through Greensburg three hours after the storm

The nurse stood in the middle of the street as the steady and strong breeze pulled her curly hair around her head. Her flowery nurse’s shirt and blue pants fluttered like a flag in the wind. She had what has become known as “the stare.” She told photographer G. Marc Benavidez and I that she could hardly recognize the faceless and crumbling businesses that stood next to her on Main Street. She said she had helped splint someone’s compound fractures in the back of a pickup. She said her family was OK. She said the hospital and clinic were destroyed, but that all the patients were moved to the basement in time. She had heard the last patient got in at the last second and that the first destructive gust of wind to hit the building slammed the door of the basement in the face of another nurse.

She didn’t know what she would do next. No one did, including us.

We just kept walking into the wind, specks of debris sandblasting us. We couldn’t open our eyes enough to see all the details. Just saw flashing red lights and big search lights ahead, to the left, to the right and behind. The beeping of trucks backing up, the scraping of snowplow blades clearing the streets and shouts of people’s names filled the air. All around us people were walking over mounds of twisted houses looking for any sign of life. Some guys from Texas were in the basement of a house (pictured above). The house had shifted entirely off its foundation, exposing the basement below. The Texans shouted and lifted boards that probably used to be ceiling or wall. Nothing. But, they told us, if somebody was in this house, they’d probably be down here. It’s hard to imagine how they might have survived, yet hundreds did just that and emerged from rubble.

Moving west, I jumped over a stream of draining water, which were at most intersections and many were about ankle deep. Marc followed. And something caught my attention from the corner of my eye in a tree. It was what appeared to be a bloody bed sheet with something inside of it. It can’t be a body, I thought out loud. Marc agreed. Couldn’t be — not with all these search teams around. But it looked like it could be until we saw it from the back side. We walked on, just saying ‘oh my God’ or some expletive that newspapers don’t print. It was like we had to empty some of our thoughts to take in new ones. It’s not a Katrina. It’s not a 9/11. But it is devastation. It is destruction. It is tragedy. It is 10 lives gone and more than a thousand altered forever. It is millions of pieces of other people’s lives forced into a blender and ruthlessly dumped in a pile. It’s Greensburg. And everybody we’ve talked to says it used to be a great little town.

We walked for several more hours, talking to residents as they wandered the streets of what used to be their town. People had had their prized possessions destroyed. Some didn’t want to be quoted because they didn’t want to look vain worrying about their life’s projects and memories and possessions when there could be unthinkable death among the ruins.

It was past 4 a.m. when I spotted a boat trailer and sat down for the first time. Marc wondered where we might find the boat. We were about a quarter block from some emergency crews, who were quietly planning. I put my head in my hands and closed my eyes. The sheets of tin, fluttering plastic and thunderous street scrapers across the city sounded like how far off battle fields sound in the movies. After five minutes, we walked on, thinking we should get an hour’s rest before the sun exposed this disaster. As we walked through the north part of town, my legs began to ache after perhaps 5 to 8 miles. It got quieter as we walked north, near the grain tower in what appeared to be an industrial part of town. Many trees remained standing, but their branches were all gone. They looked like mangled forks — the way dead trees look years after they die. This is what hell must look like, I told Marc. Nothing but stressed out heroes, crying families, lost dogs and a strong, wet wind blowing from the south and carrying smells of wood, chemicals and things I couldn’t identify.

We got back to our car on the east edge of town about 45 minutes before the first hues of morning exposed the hedge line in front of us. Marc and Dan Close (a journalist who is a Wichita State University professor and volunteered to help) got about 30 minutes of rest before going back out. I couldn’t sleep and started typing my story. It was about the first place we stopped as we walked into the town. It was a bar. I saw about 10 people gathered inside next to candles. The building lacked most windows, but it had walls and roof. I approached cautiously, but was greeted warmly, even after I explained I was a journalist and had never been to Greensburg until now. A woman told me that this bar was to become the morgue. Within 10 minutes the first body bag was being unloaded. The floor was cleared in case it got worse. People could only assume the worst with such destruction.

Marc and I stopped back at the Bar H Tavern hours later before taking our break. The woman said another body had been brought in, but was taken to a nearby hospital or morgue after a few hours. It was quieter now than the first time we stopped. The 54-year-old woman was still shocked, but in good spirits considering the situation. We joked lightly about insurance and clean up. And she said you have to laugh a little. You have to smile, she said, otherwise, it’s just too much.