Julie Harshey uses her golf cart to help people around Greensburg.
I’m astounded every time I meet and talk to people in a disaster situation. That’s been true the past two years I’ve taken a class to Greensburg.
From the people who volunteer to help rebuild homes and lives to those who lived through the tornado in May 2007 and are reconstructing their existence, it’s downright amazing. This time, once again, those of us who interviewed and met people in Greensburg were inspired by their stories and their efforts.
I was humbled by Julie Harshey, the woman whose hard-fought success to live independently was disrupted by the tornado. Julie and 18 to 20 other clients of the Iroquois Center, which treats those with mental illness, were taken to Larned State Hospital and Coldwater before they were able to return home. They had nowhere else to go.
Julie’s back in an apartment, with the help of staffers at the Iroquois Center, and once again volunteering and using her golf cart to haul people around town. Her days are dedicated to helping others.
I was most taken by Sylvia, a volunteer from the Phoenix area who has been lending a hand in Greensburg for several weeks. She stays in a storeroom at the Methodist Church, where we bunked for two weeks. Sylvia’s working for pay now, helping build the new city hall, but she’s still doing her part to help others before and after work and on weekends.
Sylvia didn’t want me to do a story on her, but I figure it’s OK to comment on her attributes if I don’t use her last name or photo. I joked with her that she must be hiding from someone or in the witness protection program. Neither scenario is true. Sylvia, like Julie, just wants to led a hand to someone in need.
Friends on the way to Iowa dropped Sylvia off at the church. This isn’t her first volunteer gig. She also helped on the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. Sylvia says she’ll leave Greensburg to return to Arizona when the weather turns cold. In the meantime, like the many hundreds who have come to the tornado-devastated community, she’s content to do her part to help.
All of us who meet people like Julie and Sylvia are better for that experience. They’re doing their work — all those little things that are seldom noticed — for all the right reasons.
Check out the students’ work at greensburgrebirth.com. You’ll see for yourself.
A Kiowa County man who does not want to be identified has a frightening story about surviving the Greensburg tornado.
He was in jail in Greensburg on a DUI charge the night the tornado hit. He had been arrested and convicted in Sedgwick County, he says, but arranged a transfer to the Kiowa County Jail to serve his six-month sentence on work release. It was his second arrest — the first was in the early 1970s, he says — so he was sentenced to jail.
The man was in his cell and watching the storm approach on TV. He heard the sirens, and then realized that sheriff’s deputies had forgotten to evacuate him when they hustled prisoners in other cells to shelter.
The TV went dead. He heard “one hell of a roar.” His ears popped, and then the jail took the brunt of the tornado. Part of the roof was ripped off, but the concrete portion held fast. The skylight was sucked out through the roof, he says, and he thought he was next.
The man held tightly onto the bars of his cell. “I thought I was gone,” he says. “That’s the scaredest I’ve ever been. I’ve had lung surgery, and I wasn’t near as scared as I was that night in the jail.”
After the storm had passed, deputies discovered that he had been left upstairs in his cell. They asked if he was OK, then left and didn’t return for about 30 minutes, he says. During the early morning hours, the man was transferred to the Dodge City Jail and then eventually brought back to Pratt, where he finished serving his sentence.
The man says he had considered a lawsuit against the county for what had happened to him, but decided against it.
“I want to live in Kiowa County,” he says, “but I couldn’t have stayed if I had sued.”
When people chuckle at his story and near misfortune, he says it’s a humorous story now. But, he adds, it wasn’t funny the night it happened. He says he’s lucky to be alive.
John Colclazier says he's had only positive comments on his roof.
John Colclazier is a Greensburg native. He was a longtime volunteer firefighter, county appraiser for 12 years and served recently on the planning commission. He seems to be the kind of guy who works hard, but doesn’t appreciate being told how to do it — or when.
Maybe that explains the roof on one of the houses he is repairing in Greensburg. He bought the house and several others that were repairable after the tornado.
The yellow house on the northeast corner of Spruce and Grant — one of just a few that survived the May 2007 storm on the west side of town — has blue tarps on the front windows and a roof with shingles of different colors. But it meets city code, he says.
That’s Colclazier’s point. He says he was reacting to a city council member’s comment at a recent meeting about progress needing to be made on some of the vacant houses. That council member, Colclazier says, lives across the street from the house he is repairing.
Colclazier’s plan is to move into the house. He lost his home in the storm, along with several rental properties. Only his home was insured, he says.
He was planning to put a metal roof with flexible solar panels on the south-facing house, but his neighbor’s comment at the council meeting prompted him to shingle the roof. The leftover shingles came from a contractor in Salina.
Eventually, Colclazier said, he’ll put on the metal roof. When? Depends, he says, on what that city councilman says further.
He says he hasn’t had one person complain about the shingles on the roof. But, he adds, he’s had 20 or 30 people stop him to say they like it.
And the blue tarps that recently went up on the side facing the council member’s house? They’re there because of another of his comments at the council meeting about blue tarps not being a sign of progress.
Under the tarps, by the way, are perfectly good windows.
Colclazier roofed his home with leftover shingles he bought from a contractor in Salina.
Courtney Looney, left, and Courtney Crain chip mortar from stones at the old Boy Scout cabin.
One of the requirements for the Greensburg class is for students to volunteer. Most have concentrated on getting interviews and writing, so the latter part of this week has been filled with work in the community.
They’ve volunteered in different ways. One student painted signs. Another mowed vacant lots with an Oklahoma group also staying at the church. One with more talent than most of us played piano during the noon hour at the nearby senior citizen center. Some worked on a deck for a homeowner, another helped a previous story source — an 87-year-old widow— clean her house and still others spent part of today on a rock pile.
The rocks are from the old Boy Scout cabin that was destroyed in the tornado. Scout officials plan to try to use the stones again.
I offered to download the sound track from “Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?” for the group cleaning mortar off the rocks. Someone joked that the class really started resembling prison this week.
WSU grad student Ozi Utah entertains residents of the Carriage House in Greensburg.
Air mattresses and my body apparently aren’t made for each other.
I tried my third air mattress in seven nights last night. It was inflated and fairly comfortable until about 2:30 this morning. Then it felt like I was sleeping on a noisy, deflated innertube.
I think I must be getting the air mattresses from the church’s “Needs to be patched” pile in the storeroom. But there’s no sign warning that they are in need of repair.
Tonight — our last in Greensburg, I plan to inflate two or three before bedtime and place them strategically in the Sunday school classroom where some of us are sleeping, That way, when one loses air, I can move to the next.
Like everyone else in class, I’m looking forward to returning to my bed.
Sometimes, en route to the real story, you run across interesting tidbits about people.
Take Georgia Abrams, for example. She’s an intern with GreenTown in Greensburg and has been attending Indiana State, but is transferring to Kansas State University this fall.
Georgia, who is staying in the basement of the Methodist Church with our group, is back for her third stint in Greensburg. She loves it here, she says.
Georgia has a lot of attributes. But the one that caught reporter Sarah Garia’s attention: She can put a quarter in her bellybutton. (Don’t try this at home.)
Sarah wanted to get a photo of her formerly hidden talent. A Georgia state quarter would have been perfect. We looked in our pockets and purses. We came up with quarters from New Mexico, Minnesota, Arizona, Maryland and several other states. But wouldn’t you know: not a Georgia quarter to be found in the building.
It's not a requirement for interns at GreenTown, but Georgia Abrams can hold a quarter in her bellybutton.
Travis Heying of The Eagle works with Molly Walsh and Rebecca Zepick on their stories.
When it comes to providing expert guidance, Wichita media professionals are always more than willing to lend a hand to students.
Four Wichita media professionals — Larry Hatteberg of KAKE, Dr. David Kamerer of Wichita State University (soon to be at Loyola of Chicago), Megan Strader of KWCH and Travis Heying of The Wichita Eagle — made the two-hour drive to share their observations about covering Greensburg and also provided technology tips the past two weeks.
Hatteberg, Strader and Heying showed their work and also images by colleagues who covered the tornado since it nearly destroyed the community in May 2007. Their work showed their journalistic expertise, but also reflected the compassion and caring they exhibit, not only in disaster aftermaths, but on a daily basis in their jobs.
Their words and photos that hit home with the state and nation when they were first made public did so once again when they provided insights with us in the fellowship hall of the church where we’re staying. They’re all true professionals.
A slide show of the work by Heying and other Eagle photographers is below.
Megan Strader of KWCH-TV discusses how she covered the tornado when she was stationed in the Dodge City bureau.
Cindy Showalter works on the wedding cake while her mother, Marilyn Goodheart of Greensburg, watches.
Funerals are more common in some western Kansas churches than weddings. That speaks volumes about the plight of small towns and their dwindling populations.
Greensburg United Methodist hosted its first wedding since it was rebuilt after the 2007 tornado. Pastor Terry Mayhew said he has conducted 11 funerals since the arrived in town two years ago. Most were in neighboring Haviland or Mullinville since the Greensburg church was destroyed. This was Mayhew’s first wedding.
Kristen Alderfer and Zachery Unruh were married May 31. The bride’s family has a long history in the church. Both the bride and groom are from Greensburg. They plan to live in a house Zach has remodeled just outside town.
The bride’s aunt, Shelly Showalter of Goodland, spent the better part of three days making the multi-tiered cake designed to feed 300. It was a family project, she said, since several relatives stopped by to lend a hand or offer advice.
We watched the daily progress on the cake as Showalter worked in the kitchen of the church where we are staying. I worried that one of the students — or perhaps a volunteer staying at the church — might unknowingly cut a piece of the cake to eat when they opened the freezer while looking for a snack late at night.
Fortunately, that didn’t happen. The cake construction — like the wedding — came off without a hitch, according to the bride’s mother, Kim Alderfer. And, speaking of the couple, Kristen and Zach are enjoying their honeymoon in the Bahamas before they return to Greensburg.
An early day photo from Buster's Web site shows the saloon when Sun City was a bustling town.
I’d never heard of Buster’s, but a couple of friends we met last year in Haviland insisted we needed to visit the saloon in Sun City before we went back to Wichita this year. I had to admit I also hadn’t heard of Sun City. And I’m familiar with a lot of small Kansas towns.
Sun City is on the northern side of the striking beauty of the Gyp Hills in Barber County. The trip from Greensburg down dirt roads and over cattle guards in open pastures was awesome. Wildflowers are in full bloom this time of year. The waitress told us there were about 60 people in town, if you counted all the cats and dogs.
Buster’s opened in the mid 1940s, and takes credit as the first bar in Kansas to have draft beer on tap. Katt Kerns and her family operate one of the few — if not the only —businesses in Sun City.
Buster’s is known for its ice-cold fishbowls of beer, but the food is good, too. Most of us had cheeseburgers and homemade fries. Best cheeseburger I’ve had in some time. Our friends were right — Buster’s is worth the trip.
The front of Buster's Saloon today. It's an inviting place — inside and out.