Tornado-stricken town plans total rebuild
On May 4, Greensburg, Kan., was struck by a devastating tornado, leaving more than 90 percent of the town, including city hall, in ruins. Despite the devastation, city officials vow to rebuild the small agricultural town, creating a new community with improved facilities and a restructured government. In response to cities in the state wanting to help the town, the Topeka, Kan.-based League of Kansas Municipalities has established a fund to assist Greensburg with the rebuilding process. American City & County talked with Greensburg Mayor Lonnie McCollum about the challenges of rebuilding, lessons learned and his vision of a new city.
Q: How is the city coping in the aftermath of the disaster?
A: There was an awful lot of disbelief, and people were just shocked. But the third day [following the tornado], people congregated at the court house to get some information. I saw people starting to smile and talk to each other, and I said, “The recovery has started.” They were starting to get the resources gathered up. The spirit of Greensburg has just been great. Once [residents] see that task out in front of them, and it’s laid out, they just get after it. People are moving on. Yesterday was yesterday, and they’re moving on and looking to the future.
Q: What is the biggest challenge to rebuilding?
A: Probably the biggest challenge is [finding] time to design the city. We have to get new zoning in place. What is this city going to look like? How [will] it function the best? [What will be] best for all the people that choose to live here, including businesses? Some people seem to think that we can just build back the way it was. We can’t do business that way. We’re going to build a new city from the ground up. Living through that time period may be our biggest challenge. We’ve got to get our utilities functioning. If we’re going to put [in] underground lines, [that has] to get done prior to putting up houses. We have to get a structure of government in place. We went from a $3 million [to] $4 million budget to a $100 million budget. That takes a government structure to be able to handle those things and handle them right.
Q: How does your vision of a new Greensburg differ from the old one?
A: We have a blank piece of paper. There’s nothing to hamper our efforts. We all have to work on it together and understand what we’re doing together. I think we’ll have a new school, hospital, swimming pool, community center [and] a shopping district. Hopefully, our homes will be energy efficient. We would very much like to see some housing built where our folks that are lower income or medium income can have a new house. [The] complete structure of our city is going to change because [we will probably receive] millions of dollars in federal aid.
Q: What have you learned?
A: We need to really educate our people that there is a reason that [they] can’t come back in immediately and there is a reason martial law [is] established. It’s [for] the protection of people’s property and their lives.
Q: How can other cites and counties help Greensburg and other communities affected by natural disasters?
A: Most places have already helped us. We want to establish a fund that will be managed by the city and [will go] to things that will help some of our people who want to come back but need employment. We all need to learn from this. As soon as the city of Greensburg gets on its feet, we will [want] to offer our services and what we’ve learned. We need to consolidate that [knowledge] into a [resource] that we can use statewide, because this will happen again to somebody else. It’s just a matter of time.