Friday, May 29, 2009

I was coming home from a turkey hunt in Nebraska recently and my route took me through Greensburg, Kansas.
It had been almost two years to the day since I was last there, and while Greensburg is slowly beginning to resemble a typical prairie town again (albeit one where virtually every house is brand new) in the national consciousness it will always be defined by the events of May 4, 2007.

On that evening two years ago I and another chaser were on the Oklahoma-Kansas border trying to decide if we should continue following the storms into Kansas or just call it a day and go home. Up to that point the chase had been a complete bust and it would be dark soon, anyway.

But the storms to the north were really starting to crank up so we took a chance, turned around and headed north toward Greensburg.

What followed was a night of terrifying superlatives: The only chase on which I’ve ever truly been scared. A tornado so large and so wide that when I first glimpsed it backlit against the power flashes and lightning I couldn’t believe it was a tornado at all.

And then there was the destruction. We started hitting the damage path about six miles south of Greensburg. Fragments of lumber where houses used to stand. Combines twisted into giant balls of sheetmetal. Dead cattle strewn everywhere.

We stopped at the first pile of rubble that used to be a home to see if anyone was trapped inside. No answer. After that it became redundant because there were simply too many destroyed homes to check on.

We got into Greensburg a few minutes later not knowing what to expect, but not expecting what we found. If you’ve never witnessed a town simply cease to exist you can’t mentally prepare yourself for the reality of such an event.

But the true enormity of the destruction wouldn’t be evident until the next day. I got home about three a.m. At seven the phone rang. It was the Associated Press. I had occasionally done some freelance work for them and they wanted to know if I could get back up to Greensburg, right now. By this time the entire town had been cordoned off but they were allowing the press to walk around (supervised) and take pictures.

It was, I believe, the most sobering experience I’d ever had up to that point. That is, until the next day when People magazine sent me back to interview survivors. What do you say, what questions to ask of people who have lost not only everything they own but also everything they know?

But driving through earlier this month and seeing all the construction, witnessing the identity of a place come slowly back into focus gave me a little more hope for Greensburg’s future than I had when I took this photograph.


  1. I can't imagine what that must have been like to be there. I imagine it was both awe inspiring and heart breaking.

    I'm glad to hear the town is reviving. That's good news.

  2. Nice work.

    Now if only I could do half as well...

    Albert A Rasch
    Where do Donations to the HSUS Go?.

  3. That was a great and moving post.