Tornado damage in KS 'unbelievable'

May 7, 2007

The United Church of Christ does not have any churches in the area impacted. The UCC will be working ecumenically with Church World Service and other ecumenical partners in response to the EF-5 tornadoes that struck the Mid-west this past weekend.

Faith groups plan response, express shock at devastation.

Information received via all of our local news media reports have not exaggerated the destruction experienced by the people of Greensburg, Kansas. The United Church of Christ does not have any churches in the area impacted. The UCC will be working ecumenically with Church World Service and other ecumenical partners in response to the EF-5 tornadoes that struck the Mid-west this past weekend. Will Best and Mike Lake, UCC Kansas-Oklahoma Conference, Disaster Response Coordinators are in contact with the Kansas VOAD (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster) and will represent us on the long term recovery committee. Will and Mike both have requested that no material donations be collected or sent; they request that financial contributions be sent to the One Great Hour of Sharing special fund, Emergency USA. This will allow the UCC to support the long term recovery efforts to assist with rebuilding homes. At the appropriate time, information about how volunteer work groups may participate in the rebuilding process will be posted on the UCC web site. The following information is provided from our ecumenical partners:

Kevin King surveyed the destruction from the Greensburg tornado on Saturday and was amazed. "The town was just razed," he said. "It's absolutely unbelievable. "I've never seen anything like this," said King, director of Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS). "It was so powerful. The brick walls of churches and homes, every brick was separated. It wasn't just walls that fell over together, bricks are just strewn about." King was in the central Kansas area Friday to attend a graduation ceremony at Heston College. When he and his crew heard about the tornado, they immediately drove to Greensburg to help. Greensburg Mennonite Church and its parsonage were destroyed when the twister hit shortly before 10 p.m., but the pastor and his family were not injured.

The National Weather Service confirmed Sunday that the tornado was an EF-5 with winds of more than 200 miles per hour. It left a 22-mile path of destruction more than a mile wide in most parts. The storm killed at least eight people and injured 60 others when it tore through the small rural town of about 1,600 located 110 miles west of Wichita. A ninth fatality was reported in a nearby county.

King said little remains of most homes. The west side of the town suffered the most damage, with every building nearly obliterated. "There are just piles of rubble 4 feet high all over the place," King said. "Trees are stripped down to 8 and 9 feet tall." He said a few structures on the east side of town had some walls remaining and several more buildings were still standing.

President Bush on Sunday declared Kiowa County a federal disaster area, freeing up federal funds to assist the community.

Faith-based groups, including MDS, the United Methodist Church and the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC), were gearing up to respond.

MDS cleanup teams were awaiting the go-ahead to enter town to help residents. Some teams were already assisting people in other affected communities north and east of Greensburg. Greensburg Mennonite Church members planned to meet for a 9 a.m. Sunday service in a parking lot near a shelter in Haviland. An MDS mental health professional was expected to be there to assist the pastor and congregation.

King praised the nearby town of Haviland for being so open and welcoming to the hundreds of Greensburg families sheltered there. He said the mood at the shelters was one of shock. "You can easily hear neighbors asking each other, 'Do you have a house? No? Me neither,'" he said. "And they're also saying, 'My house is gone, how about yours?' It's quite moving here for these residents."

Search and rescue teams pulled trapped families from basements throughout the day Saturday. Many spent frightening moments praying for their lives as the tornado passed overhead. King said the local Mennonite Church pastor and his wife, Jeff and Lori Blackburn, rode out the storm in their basement. "He said they heard the sirens and ran to the basement, and then the sirens stopped because the electricity was knocked out," he said. "They huddled in the basement and their ears starting popping. I asked him how long it took, and he said it felt like an eternity, but it was maybe five minutes. "The next thing they noticed was that rain started pouring in on them in the dark," King said. "He thought a pipe broke, but then when he took out his penlight and looked up, sure enough, he saw the sky."

Cherri and Bob Baer, disaster response representatives from the United Methodist Committee on Relief, were scheduled to arrive Monday to help conference disaster ministers Nancy Profitt and Julie Pohl. Bill Adams, CRWRC disaster response director, was also heading to Greensburg. "The town is completely flattened so it's unlikely we'll be sending our rapid response teams, which often can provide survivors with clean up and short-term repair assistance," Adams said. "Sadly, in Greensburg, there doesn't appear to be much left to repair." Cherri Baer predicted the emotional impact would be significant. "We'll have to do a lot of spiritual care and listening," she said. "Everybody was affected by this."

Pastor Gene McIntosh of the Greensburg First United Methodist Church was reported safe with his family after riding out the storm in the parsonage basement. Both the church and homes were severely damaged or destroyed. Baer said United Methodist volunteer teams were on standby until they are allowed entry to the town. "I think the volunteers may just have to hang it up for a while," she said. "They're not going to let us in there. (The city) is assessing which structures volunteers can be around to see if any are safe to have volunteers around."

Baer said she was shocked by images of the destruction. She said they reminded her of the devastation on the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. "Usually in a Kansas tornado or elsewhere, there's the path of destruction, and then on the left and right side there are people who can come help," she said. "Yet in a hurricane everyone is affected, and that's how this was. "Everyone was affected," she said. "It included everyone and it took out everyone."

One local emergency official described the situation as "the most significant emergency the state of Kansas has faced in a long, long time." The National Weather Service said the tornado's path was 1.4 miles long. The Kiowa County Hospital and two local schools were severely damaged or destroyed. National Guard troops were sent in to assist and a curfew was imposed from 8 p.m. Saturday to 8 a.m. Sunday.

"There's just not a lot left down there," said incident commander Terry David. "It's a mess." City Administrator Steve Hewitt said 95 percent of the town was damaged or destroyed. "It's a devastating sight," said Hewitt, whose home was among those destroyed. "How are we going to rebuild? We've got to do this right, and it's going to be a tough road ahead of us." Hewitt said town would need to rally itself for the recovery. "We've got to come together as one," he said. "It's not going to be easy, but we can do it."

The severe weather Friday night also spawned tornadoes in Oklahoma and Illinois but caused only minor damages and no injuries. More severe weather and tornadoes affected the central U.S. Saturday night as the storm system moved through the region. The National Weather Service reported 75 tornado touchdowns across the region. A tornado also touched down in Pratt County just east of Kiowa County Saturday evening.

How you can help

1. Pray for people who live in communities affected by tornados.

2. To help those affected by disasters you may, send gifts payable to your congregation marked for “Emergency USA” with the request they be sent through your Conference office on to Wider Church Ministries.

Or

3. Send gifts, made out to Wider Church Ministries and marked in the memo portion “Emergency USA”  to the Office for Global Sharing of Resources; Wider Church  Ministries; 700 Prospect Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44115.

Or

4. Make a secure online donation now.

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