Sunday, 24 June 2007

Greensburg Tornado

On May 4th 2007 a huge devastating tornado wiped out the entire town of Greensburg in south western Kansas. It was the first ever tornado to be rated EF5 on the enhanced tornado intensity scale, destroying at least 95% of the city and killing ten people.

It is now June 21st and I am back in Greensburg, not as a curious bypasser, but as an active player to the cause of the Greensburg people. My mission over the next two days is capture images of the devastation, talk to the local people and take the information back home to the UK in order to raise awareness of the event. I am hoping by way of media coverage and a future exhibition this can be expedited, which in turn will raise much needed money for the Greensburg cause. Unfortunately, disasters of this nature become yesterday's news too quickly. It is so important to sustain coverage and aid in order to rejuvinate a sense of normality (if that is possible).

A complete photographic account of this trip can be found by clicking this link Greensburg Photos

After a grueling two flights and hefty drive from Oklahoma City I eventually reached the outskirts of Greensburg, Kansas late in the afternoon, some 18 hours after leaving the UK. I should have felt shattered but in fact the opposite was the case. I was excited yet cautious of the response I would get to effectively an outsider snooping around. Approaching from the south, and a few miles away from Greensburg, evidence of tornado damage was all around. New telegraph poles, replacing damaged, broken trees and isolated proprty damage both sides of the road. As I entered Greensburg the same shocking scenes that I witnessed two weeks ago greeted me. For some strange reason I anticipated a whole deal of clear up and a completely different scene. I was wrong. There had been a whole deal of clear up but the shocking scene remained, such was the scale of the disaster.

I immediately made my way to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) camp, to the south of the town, and introduced myself and my purpose. I was greeted with open arms, given a brief on the job in hand for the aid workers, and signed in. These guys were busy constructing temporary accommodation on a site the size of a dozen football fields, many of which were all ready in place, for the displaced Greensburg residents. A huge undertaking, and one not to interfer so I moved on. Although very tired I was keen to get stuck in and consequently set about town with cameras in tow. One Olympus E1 was fitted with a wide angle 7-14mm lens, the other a 14-55mm. Boy did that wide angle come in handy!

I was keen to stay for a couple of hours before heading off to find accommodation. As I wandered around, the scale and intensity of the destruction hit me. Block after block of total destruction, like I have never seen before. I read somewhere, someone likening it to a picture of Hiroshima after the Nuclear bomb. A shocking yet accurate description as it happens. Houses of all construction levelled amidst row after row of tree stubs.

Whilst taking some photos a Kansas Police Patrol car pulled up. I introduced myself and what I was up to. The Topeka, Kansas patrol man responded in a somewhat familiar English accent "You from England Boy" he jested. A scouser with an adopted American accent, very strange, but it broke the ice. We ended up chatting for a fair while about life in Kansas, the tornado and his beloved football team Everton. 5000 miles to the heart of the mid-west Plains and coming across a Patrolman from Liverpool, how very surreal.


After overnighting in nearby Dodge City I was back in Greensburg for 0900hrs the next day. With only one day to complete the assignment it would have been impossible to tackle the site in a logical block by block approach. The devastation was far too widesperead. I decided to drive slowly around and target areas of differing interest (a job in itself!) and damage. I would also approach people whom I thought were associated with the town with a view to carrying out an interview and recording via a digital recorder. I started the latter with the static sites, targeting the Salvation Army camp. Dennis Flom was the Salvation Army commander in charge of operations in Greensburg who has a wealth of experience in these situations. His CV included major global disasters including the Asian Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. His interview was very informative and summarises operations in Greensburg. To listen click here Salvation Army interview

Continuing around the town I came across every conceivable sight feasible in terms of damage. Some properties flattened to a pile of rubble, others barely standing and some leaving behind just a hole in the ground where the foundations once lay. A truly shocking sight. One such scene I recall well. All that was left was steps. Steps that led to nowhere, but just a hole in the ground. I can't imagine what these resident thought when they returned to Greenburg and this sight greeted them.

As I continued photographing a man approached. He was carrying wounds and bandages which I assumed he obtained from the tornado. Not only did he agree to be interviewed but also let me have some amazing photographs he took the day after the tornado had struck. His name was Charles Jones and boy what a character he was. His love for an old 1978 Ford pick-up (which saved his life) makes for complusive listening. To listen click here Charles Jones interview

Another distressing feature to the array of damage was the countless personal items laying around. Shoes, toys, clothes to name a few. These were located in the exact position in which they were left on that May 4th evening after 200mph+ winds had ravaged the town. Quite amazing. One such object was a book. It was lying amogst the dirt next to a concrete foundation where a house once belonged. It was open with the name Karen Smith hand written in the top left corner of the page. My mind went into overtime at this point. Was she still alive? Where is she now? Difficult not to become emotionally involved at times like this.

There was a constant buzz of activity in Greensburg with construction workers, plant and all sorts of aid workers in action. Up till Sunday June 24th over 6500 volunteers had contributed their own time. Over 30,000 truck loads of debris had already been removed. There was also a heavy Police presence. I was approached on many occasions by Kansas Patrols, drafted in from all over Kansas to help. I managed to pull one over for an interview and even then there was countless interruptions. However, it was interesting to see hear what the Police were doing in their daily duties and thoughts on life in Tornado Alley. To listen to the interview with a Kansas State patroller click here Kansas Police interview

One thing that was also evident in Greensburg was the presence of trees. The town was littered with them. Most now resemble stubs or are completely uprooted. I came across this tree which was enormous and totally uprooted. It took my breath away thinking of the wind forces required to do this. Pure luck the tree never landed on the house! An interesting little anecdote I read regarding other historic tornadoes that had left similar imprints on town life across the USA. Whilst human recovery had been achieved with residents re-building homes, they had not replaced trees, and consequently there was a distinct lack of animal noise, life and recovery. The animal eco-system that trees and plants create is priceless and irreplaceable without the very habitat in which they live. I hope Greensburg takes this on board when rebuilding. Don't forget the trees....and the subsequent wildlife guys!

Probably the most difficult interview I conducted was with an elderly couple (I hope they don't mind me calling them that), John and Barbara Fleener. Their entire life has been spent in Greensburg and they are well known and respected members of the community with a heavy involvement with the methodist church. They also ran the Funeral home in Main Street, which was destroyed by the tornado. I really appreciate their cooperation because their words on life in Greensburg and the tornado almost brought me to tears. To listen to the interview click here John & Barbara Fleener interview

Greensburg was not just a residential community, there were lots of active businesses too. Many of these now do not exist and I can only imagine the heartache of rebuilding lives together with a business. One such businessman I came across was Richard Inglekin. He owned many business premises and a home in Greensburg. I was taking photographs of one such buliding which was quite amazing. The walls had completely collapsed leaving just the roof sitting on the ground encapsulating the stock within. As I was walking around the damaged building Richard drove up to me asking of my actions. I explained and we stopped to talk for ages on business life in Greensburg. You can listen to that interview click here. Richard Inglekin interview

I was running low on gas by now so I pulled over one of the Kansas Police Patrols and asked for the nearest fuel pumps. There was one in place and working only a few hundred yards along the main through route. As I pulled in to fill up I took the opportunity of speaking with the attendant who allowed me to record the conversation. By now I felt like a proper correspondant! This gas station, which had a golf course to the rear, was just on the periphery of the tornado damage and was fortunately spared from destruction. Sarah Unrew, the attendant was telling me the story of how her sister took cover on that evening when the tornado passed through. An amazing story. You can listen to that interview click here. Sarah U interview

That was to be the last of my interviews. I felt that was enough and to be honest I was finding it quite emotionally difficult to sustain. I continued moving around with the camera. One of the things I did come across every now and again was a storm shelter or two. These were effectively steps underground to a basement area, away from the main property. Constructed as a concrete bunker they are designed to withstand tornadoes and boy did they save some lives on that night. Most people sought shelter when the warning sirens sounded, I gathered from conversations with people. However, not everyone can afford such tornado havens and I am sure that those people who unfortunately lost lives in this disater either did not have a shelter or chose, for some reason, not to use it. This is what a typical shelter looks like.

Another common feature was wrecked cars. The town was littered with cars that looked like they had been sitting on a scrapheap for years. Some cars were obviously picked up and hurled to wherever they landed by the looks of them. Some of them took on a human like appearance, sitting there and looking so sad. This entire event was for sure going to be a gross massive insurance payout.

From a research point of view I was looking for many usual signatures associated with tornadic damage. These signatures I have witnessed before with such damage in both the UK and overseas, albeit in lesser intense events. Buildings pierced with projectiles, localised rotation damage, bark stripped trees etc. In fact so widespead and intense was the destruction that I witnessed very few of these signatures. This shocked me but was also a valuable learning exercise. There comes a point within the rotational destruction of vortexes where damage becomes unrecognisably specific. This I assume is where and why the EF5 intensity scale was attributed.

Finally, as I walked around the town I attempted to portray, in words, what I witnessed. Obviuosly the photos speak a million words but I thought it was appropriate to try and pass on my reactive thoughts at the time of passing certain areas of damage. There are five recorded messages each describing different aspects of the tornado damage. You can listen to those by clicking below . Right click & save as, works best.
Mark Humpage walk'n talk 1
Mark Humpage walk'n talk 2
Mark Humpage walk'n talk 3
Mark Humpage walk'n talk 4
Mark Humpage walk'n talk 5

I have expressed my closing thoughts on this visit in all that it means to me and to the people of Greensburg in this poignant recording. As they say in this country "God Bless America". Concluding comments

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Please note I have maintained the high quality of all recorded sound files included in this blog. They may take a few moments to download so please be patient. They are well worth the wait! If you having problems with the links try right click, save as.

If this story has touched you in any way then I urge you to help by making a donation, no matter how small, it all helps. Follow this Salvation Army link to donate, PLEASE ( Insert the country you are from and this will take you to the donation details page. Within the Specific use Donation Details box insert GREENSBURG DISASTER DONATION - All monies raised through this disaster fund are guaranteed to be directed to Greensburg people.CLICK HERE TO DONATE

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