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Kansas Town Tries to Recover After Tornado

May 7, 2007 at 6:10 PM EST
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Now, the disaster in Kansas and its aftermath. Ray Suarez has the story.

RAY SUAREZ: Three days after a tornado leveled Greensburg, Kansas, residents were allowed to return today to see the damage for themselves and recover what little belongings were left. The Stone family found that few, if any, of their family’s possessions are intact.

JUSTIN STONE, Tornado Victim: And when we come up, we seen everything was gone. But it didn’t all set in until — I mean, we seen it on the news, but when we pulled up it just looked so much worse.

THERESA STONE, Tornado Victim: It’s unbelievable, scary. We’ve been in this house for 16 years. And I raised my kids in it, four kids. And I’m glad that they’re all safe. I mean, I don’t care about the house or any of the other stuff. I’m just glad my kids are safe.

RAY SUAREZ: As Kristy Clark picked through the remains of her house, she found a soggy envelope filled with cash.

KRISTY CLARK, Tornado Victim: Hey, money!

TORNADO VICTIM: You’re buying drinks tonight!

Only two structures left in town

Sgt. Ronald Knoefel
Kansas Highway Patrol
Everybody has damage, every single person. And in most cases, not only do they have damage, they have nothing left.

RAY SUAREZ: The local bar and the grain elevator are the only structures left standing in the town of 1,500 people. Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius was at the scene hours after the twister hit.

GOV. KATHLEEN SEBELIUS, Kansas: The whole community is gone, the infrastructure of every bank, every business. Everybody's home is just gone.

RAY SUAREZ: The tornado carved a path nearly two miles wide and 22 miles long and was the most powerful to touch down in the U.S. in eight years. A warning siren that blared 20 minutes before the winds slammed into the town allowed residents to seek cover.

TORNADO VICTIM: I've never seen devastation on this large of a scale.

SGT. RONALD KNOEFEL, Kansas Highway Patrol: Everybody has damage, every single person. And in most cases, not only do they have damage, they have nothing left.

RAY SUAREZ: This is what Greensburg looked like before Friday night: the main street, a bed and breakfast, and one of the town's most popular attractions, the world's biggest hand-dug well. Today, all the homes, churches and schools are reduced to ruins. The hand-dug well is filled with debris. Classes are canceled for the remainder of the school year.

GREENSBURG SPOKESPERSON: What this is, is this is what's left of the junior high and the elementary school in Greensburg.

RAY SUAREZ: The tornado that devastated this town in south-central Kansas was part of a larger system that swept through three other states, South Dakota, Nebraska and Oklahoma. That same system left other communities in Kansas and Iowa flooded.

The National Weather Service classified the twister as F-5, its strongest classification, with winds that reached 205 miles per hour.

Survivors overjoyed to find family

Jessica George
Tornado Victim
It didn't matter what the house looked like. It didn't matter that there was a car in the front yard, you know? I just knew it would be OK, because I got to hug my mom and dad.

RAY SUAREZ: But amidst the rubble, there are stories of hope. Search and rescue teams pulled one survivor from the wreckage late last night, and others are overjoyed to see their family members are not hurt.

JESSICA GEORGE, Tornado Victim: He just ran up to the porch, because I was just so happy to see them. It was like, everything was OK, because they were OK, you know? It didn't matter what the house looked like. It didn't matter that there was a car in the front yard, you know? I just knew it would be OK, because I got to hug my mom and dad.

RAY SUAREZ: Jessica found her grandmother's china undamaged in the rubble, along with her wedding dress. But many other belongings were wrecked.

MARVIN GEORGE, Tornado Victim: When you step out and you look at the devastation out there, you know, you ask yourself, "How in the world did I survive this?"

RAY SUAREZ: The community now must decide what, if anything, to rebuild.

GREENSBURG COMMUNITY MEMBER: Do you rebuild? Because this is a whole city.

GREENSBURG COMMUNITY MEMBER: It can definitely be rebuilt, if people hang around and help.

RAY SUAREZ: But there are already some residents who've decided to leave.

SANDRA GEORGE, Tornado Victim: I don't know where they'll be when we're all done with all this. A lot of people are leaving, and I just hate that. I won't leave. I'll be here.

RAY SUAREZ: David Paulison, the Federal Emergency Management Agency director, toured the area today. After President Bush declared parts of Kansas a disaster area yesterday, that will free up federal money to rebuild.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: There's a certain spirit in the Midwest of our country, a pioneer spirit that still exists, and I'm confident this community will be rebuilt. To the extent that we can help, we will.

Congressmen provide support

Sen. Sam Brownback
R-Kan.
You can't help but to note the spirit, then, of people that want to rebuild and that are going to rebuild. And they're going to rebuild Greensburg into even a better and stronger community into the future.

RAY SUAREZ: State and federal officials talked to reporters late this afternoon.

SEN. SAM BROWNBACK (R), Kansas: It is a total disaster. It is a difficult thing to see. And I'm sure it is a much more difficult thing to live through, for the residents of Greensburg and the entire area. We wanted to make sure in getting here that they had all the assets they need on the ground.

We had a good meeting with the people emergency response here. They say they have all the assets that they need. If there are more, we want to do whatever we can to get them here.

The president of the United States will be coming out on Wednesday. And I'm delighted to see that he'll be coming out, and also making a point that we're going to do everything we can to see that Greensburg comes back, moves forward.

Our hearts go out to all the families that lost loved ones and that obviously have had this enormous impact on their lives, but you can't help but to note the spirit, then, of people that want to rebuild and that are going to rebuild. And they're going to rebuild Greensburg into even a better and stronger community into the future.

REP. JERRY MORAN (R), Kansas: There is a significant number of Kansans and Americans who care about the well-being of the people in this community. On Sunday, the prayers were offered across this state. The offering plates were passed. People stopped and asked all of us, all the time, "How can we contribute to the improvement and the well-being of the people of Greensburg?"

And, finally, there are Kansans who are waiting with hammers and shovels and will be here personally to help this community rebuild.

RAY SUAREZ: Officials said that search and recovery operations are ongoing.