Old spirit still thrives
in new Greensburg
“Well, I guess you haven’t heard,” the voice of Becky Chandler crackled through Lana Janssen’s cell phone, “but Greensburg got blown away tonight.”
John and Lana Janssen had been in Kansas City, watching a play, “The Syringa Tree,” oblivious that the biggest and baddest of tornadoes had swooped down onto the Kansas prairie and gobbled up their entire hometown of Greensburg.
Chandler, a friend of the Janssens’, phoned storm updates to John and Lana while she watched televised news reports from her Wichita home.
Tornadoes happen all the time in Kansas. They are so prevalent that the seasons should be named summer, fall, winter and tornado.
“We’ve sat out in fields and just watched tornadoes before,” recalls John, who earned a Purdue degree in agricultural economics in 1971. “If you’re not too close, they are kind of fun to watch.”
John Janssen and Ted Chandler had been known to chase a few across the Kansas prairie — in part to get a better look, in part for the sheer thrill of it.
“We stopped during planting one time and watched five of them at one time,” Janssen recalls.
And now, Ted’s wife, Becky, was calling to tell them their hometown had been destroyed by one of the worst tornadoes in American history.
As storms go, this tornado was a freak, with winds up to 215 miles an hour. It picked up a car from the back parking lot at the Kiowa County Courthouse, scraped it across the roof on top of the third floor, where its blue paint remains to this day, and dropped it like a Tonka toy in the front yard. A canceled check from Greensburg was found in Great Bend, Kansas, more than 75 miles away.
“Some people thought the tornado was over and came outside to inspect the damage,” Janssen says. “That lasted for about a minute, until the air pressure dropped and their ears started popping. Then people realized, ‘Hey, the party’s not over yet.’”
They were in the eye of the storm. The backside of the twister did more damage because it was filled with debris stirred up by the storm’s front side.
Driving back to Greensburg at the speed of fear, John and Lana stopped in Wichita to pick up some essentials — a few flashlights, bottled water, batteries and Spam. Not knowing what they would find, they stopped in Pratt, 30 miles east of Greensburg, and got a room at the Days Inn. It would be their home for the next five weeks.
Dawn’s light revealed the hell hidden by the darkness that preceded it.
“We got beat up pretty bad,” Janssen says of his neighborhood. His house on Pine Street was still recognizable, though it had sustained substantial structural damage and would eventually be razed. “Our house was badly damaged, but it stayed up. I was amazed. The Good Lord smiled down on us.”
It was a true testament of faith, coming from a man in a city where every church (nine, in all) was destroyed.
The tornado leveled the electrical substation just south of town before bearing down on the city. The power outage reduced the chances of fires started by electrical sparks. A good thing, considering the fire station collapsed like a house of cards on top of the city’s fire trucks, rendering them useless.
As soon as the storm cleared, police shut down the town to begin rescue efforts and see who had survived and who had been less fortunate.
And while the body count stopped at 11, the fire chief, fearing the worst, had ordered 300 body bags.
The Janssens snuck into town through a back road, checked the damage to their house, then started shuttling neighbors to the evacuation center.
The heart of the town, the two-story, block-long brick building that was the home of the Greensburg High Rangers was gone. On Main Street, only the Centera Bank building remained, sticking solemnly out of the earth like a giant tombstone for the town itself.
“At sunrise, I stood on Main Street and I realized I could see things that were 16 miles away,” Janssen recalls. “There was nothing there.”
Everything was gone, everything but the spirit of a town that vows to come back better and greener than before.