portland independent media center  
images audio video
newswire article reporting united states

community building | social services

A report from a Kansas Mutual Aid member from tornado devastated Greensburg, Kansas

Somewhere over the Rainbow:
A report from a Kansas Mutual Aid member from tornado devastated
Greensburg, Kansas
Somewhere over the Rainbow:
A report from a Kansas Mutual Aid member from tornado devastated
Greensburg, Kansas

by Dave Strano

On Saturday May 12, four members of Kansas Mutual Aid, a Lawrence based
class struggle anarchist collective traveled to the small South Central
Kansas town of Greensburg. Our intention was to go as a fact-finding
delegation, to report back to the social justice movement in Lawrence on
what exactly was happening in the city.

On Friday May 4, 2007 Greensburg was almost completely destroyed by a F5
tornado. 97% of the buildings in the town of 1500 were destroyed or
damaged beyond repair. Nearly every single resident was left homeless,
jobless, and devastated. At least eleven people died in the storm, and
hundreds of companion animals, livestock, and wild animals were killed as
well.

According to the 2000 census, 97% of the population of Greensburg was
white, and the median income of the population was a meager $28,000. The
city was and still is comprised of overwhelmingly poor, white working
people.

Shortly after the tornado, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
took control of the recovery efforts in Greensburg. The United Way became
the coordinating organization for relief volunteers but, after orders came
from FEMA, halted the flow of volunteers into Greensburg. FEMA demanded
that Greensburg needed to be "secured" before the area could be opened to
real recovery efforts.

So, as hundreds of recovery volunteers were told to not come to Greensburg
by the United Way, hundreds of police from dozens of Kansas jurisdictions
were mobilized to enter the city and establish "control."

Reports coming from the recovery effort in Greensburg had been woefully
short of information. We made multiple phone calls to the United Way and
other aid agencies, and were told repeatedly not to come, that "We don't
need volunteers at this time." We were told that if we wanted to help, we
should just make a financial donation to the Salvation Army or United Way.

With the experiences of Katrina and other major disasters fresh in our
collective conscious, we decided to go anyway, to assess the situation and
be able to present a better picture to those people in Lawrence that were
rightfully concerned about the effectiveness of the relief efforts.

On the night of Friday May 11, in the spirit of offering solidarity to the
working class population of Greensburg, members of KMA traveled two hours
to Wichita and spent the night there. A mandatory curfew had been imposed
on Greensburg, with no one being able to be in the city between 8pm and
8am. So after a nearly sleepless night, we piled into our vegetable oil
burning car and made the final two hour drive to Greensburg, careful to
not arrive before 8.

Multiple news agencies had reported that because of FEMA, all volunteers
were being denied entry at the checkpoints set up outside the city. As we
approached the checkpoint, we became really nervous, and tried to make
sure we had our story straight.

We were stopped by an armed contingent of Kansas Highway Patrol Officers.
We explained that we had come to help with the relief efforts, and after a
quick stare and glance into our car, the officer in charge directed us to
a red and white tent about half a mile into the town.

It turned out that on Friday the 11th, a week after the tornado destroyed
Greensburg, the Americorps organization was finally given permission to
establish and coordinate volunteer recovery efforts. Americorps members
from St. Louis had set up their base of operations in a large red and
white canopy tent that was also being used a meeting place for the
residents of the city.

Americorps volunteers proved to be pretty reliable for information, and
good contacts to have made while we were down there. Despite the
hierarchical and contradictory aims of the national organization, the
Americorps people on the ground were the only people really offering any
physical recovery aid to the residents of Greensburg.

The four of us from KMA, signed in to the volunteer tent and were given
red wristbands that were supposed to identify us as aid workers. We
decided not to wait to be assigned a location to work, and instead to
travel around the city on foot and meet as many local people as we could.

Our primary goals were numerous. We intended to analyze the situation and
assess how our organization could help from Lawrence. If long term
physical aid was needed from us, we had to make contacts within the local
populace that could offer a place to set up a base camp. We also intended
to find out what happened to the prisoners in the county jail during and
after the storm, and what the current procedure for those being arrested
was. In a highly militarized city, the police and military were the
biggest threat to personal safety.

As we traveled further into the ravaged town, it became clear that the
photographs I had seen had not done justice to what truly had happened
here. All that could be seen was endless devastation in every direction.
There wasn't a single building in this area of the town that had been left
standing. The devastation was near complete. Every single house we came
across in the first moments we entered the town had completely collapsed.
Every single tree was mangled and branchless. Memories of watching
post-nuclear warfare movies filled my head as we walked around the city.

This was a post-apocalyptic world. The city was eerily empty for the most
part. National Guard troops patrolled in Hummers and trucks. Occasionally,
a Red Cross or Salvation Army truck would drive by. Very few residents
were there working on their homes.

After a short while, we met with several people evacuating belongings from
their home. They told us that FEMA had been there for a week, and that all
FEMA could offer them was a packet of information. The packet, however,
had to be mailed to the recipients, and they had no mailing address! Their
entire house had been destroyed. Their mailbox was probably in the next
county. All they were left to do was evacuate what few belongings could be
saved from their house, and then pull the non-salvageable belongings and
scraps of their house to the curb for the National Guard trash crews to
haul away.

No agency in the city besides Americorps was offering to help with the
removal of this debris, or the recovery of people's homes. FEMA's mission
was to safeguard the property of businesses in the area and offer "low
interest" loans to property owners affected. The National Guard was on
hand along with the local police, to act as the enforcement mechanism for
FEMA, while occasionally hauling debris and garbage out of the city.

The only building in the city that FEMA and others were working in or
around was the County Courthouse. When we approached this area, we quickly
took notice of the giant air-conditioned FEMA tour buses, along with
dozens of trailers that were now housing the City Hall, police dispatch
centers, and emergency crews.

The media had reported that residents of the city would be receiving FEMA
trailers similar to the ones in New Orleans. The only FEMA trailer I saw
was being occupied by police.

At this location, we tried to formulate some answers as to what had
happened to any prisoners being housed in the county jail during the
storm, as well as the fate of the at least seven people that had been
arrested since the storm.

Not a single person could offer us a real answer. As of the writing of
this article, we are still working to find the answer to that question. We
have ascertained that any prisoners that were in Greensburg during the
storm were sent to Pratt County Jail immediately after the storm had
subsided. However, we still don't know how many people that accounts for,
nor do we know the fate of any arrestees in the week since.

Several of the arrestees after the storm were soldiers from Fort Riley
that were sent in to secure the town. They have been accused of "looting"
alcohol and cigarettes from a grocery store. The residents I talked to
said that they had been told that the soldiers had just returned from
Iraq. Is it a wonder that they would want to get drunk the first chance
they could? The social reality of this situation was beginning to really
set in. The city was in chaos, not because of the storm, but because of
FEMA and the police.

In the immediate recovery after the storm, FEMA and local police not only
worked to find survivors and the dead, but also any firearms in the city.
As you pass by houses in Greensburg, you notice that some are spraypainted
with how many weapons were recovered from the home. This is central
Kansas, a region with extremely high legal gun ownership. Of the over 350
firearms confiscated by police immediately after the storm, only a third
have been returned to their owners. FEMA and the police have
systematically disarmed the local population, leaving the firepower
squarely in control of the state.

Later in the day we traveled with an Americorps volunteer that turned out
to be the sister of one of the members of the Lawrence anti-capitalist
movement. She gave us a small driving tour of the rest of the devastation
that we hadn't seen yet, and then deposited us in front of a house of a
family that was busy trying to clear out their flooded basement.

Two days of rain had followed the tornado, and with most houses without
roofs, anything left inside the house that may have survived the initial
storm, was destroyed or at risk of being destroyed. The casualties of the
storm weren't just structures and cars... they were memories and loved ones,
in the forms of photographs, highschool yearbooks, family memorabilia and
momentos. People's entire lives had been swept away by the storm.

We joined in the effort to help clear the basement, and listened to the
stories of the storm that the family told us. They explained that they had
just spent their life savings remodeling the basement, and now it was
gone. It had survived just long enough to save them and some neighbors
from the storm.

We removed whatever belongings were left in the basement, and sorted the
belongings into five piles. The smallest of the piles by far, as the pile
of things that were salvageable and worth keeping. The other piles
included one for wood debris, one for metal, one for hazardous waste, and
another pile for anything else that needed to be removed. From under one
of the piles, a scent of rotting flesh wafted through the air. The family
was afraid to look and see what may be hidden under the metal.

As we were preparing to leave the work site after clearing the entire
basement, we were thanked heartily by the family and their friends. "Next
time," one of them said, "bring fifty more with you."

Next time we will. It should be obvious to most by now, that the federal,
state, and local governments that deal with disasters of this magnitude
are not interested in helping the poor or working people that are really
impacted. Only through class solidarity from other working people and
working together with neighbors and community members will the people of
Greensburg be able to survive and rebuild.

Kansas Mutual Aid is in the midst of organizing a more permanent and
structured relief effort. We are continuing to make contacts to secure a
base camp for our work. We hope to have things organized and solidified by
Memorial Day Weekend when we plan to travel back with as many people,
tools, and supplies we can take.

Our goals are three fold:
1) To provide direct physical relief support to the residents of
Greensburg by being on hand to help salvage their homes, and provide any
other physical support they ask of us.

2) To offer solidarity and aid in any future organizing or agitating
efforts that will be needed to retain possession of their homes, or to
acquire any other physical aid they demand from the government or other
agencies.

3) To provide support and protection of human rights during the police and
military occupation of the city. We will work to document arrests and
ensure that human rights of arrestees are protected.

If you live in Eastern Kansas, or are willing to travel, we need your help
and experience. We also need a laundry list of supplies including:

Money for fuel for our vehicles
Respirators and filtered face masks
Headlamps and flashlights (none of the city has power, and there are a lot
of basements that will need to be worked in)
Shovels, pickaxes, prybars, crowbars, sledgehammers, and heavy duty rakes
Gloves, boots, goggles, construction helmets and other protective clothing
First Aid supplies
Water and Food (non-perishable) for volunteers heading down
Chainsaws and Gasoline
Portable generators
You and your experience

Please, if you have anything you can offer, or want to help in the relief,
e-mail us at  kansasmutualaid@hotmail.com

We will be hosting a presentation on Monday May 21st at the Solidarity
Center in downtown Lawrence (1109 Mass Street) at 7pm on our experiences
in Greensburg, and on our plans to offer relief in the form of solidarity
and mutual aid, and not as charity. Please join us if you can.

There seems like there is much more to say, but with the experience fresh
in my mind, it's hard to keep typing. Action and organization is needed
more than a longer essay at this moment.

In love and solidarity,
Dave Strano
Kansas Mutual Aid member
Lawrence, Kansas

another post found on the wire 15.May.2007 07:06

.

Disasters of our Age
From Fallujah to Greensburg
By Joe Carr

5-12-2007

I spent last Saturday in Greensburg, KS, and I can barely describe the
devastation I saw there. I wish that I could say I've never seen
anything like it, but the destruction and official response was hauntingly
similar to what I witnessed in Palestine and Iraq during my trips there from
2003-2005.

Greensburg is a small central Kansas town of about 1,400 people. A
largely white working class city, the median income is $28,000, leaving almost
20% of the population under the official poverty line. On Friday, May 4th,
a 1.7 mile-wide tornado (possibly the largest ever recorded) destroyed or
damaged 95% of the city, killing 9 people. Most residents lost
everything and have not been able to return.

We called the United Way last week about going down to help, and they
told us that they didn't need any more volunteers and to just send money.
Upon further pressing, they admitted that there was a lot of work to do, but
they didn't have a good system for coordinating volunteers. Other news
sources were saying that National Guard troops had sealed off the city
and no one was being allowed in. We decided to head down there and see for
ourselves.

The checkpoint was much easier to get through than any checkpoint I
experienced in Iraq or Palestine. But it was new for me to be
questioned by armed military personnel in order to enter a US city. The town is
very much under military occupation, armored hummers and trucks patrol the
streets, along with police from all over the state. Indeed, I saw more
police and military vehicles than construction equipment, despite
Kansas having over half its machinery and many of its National Guard troops
deployed to Iraq. You can bet that if there was a social uprising in a
US city, the National Guard would be sent in full force to repress it like
we saw in the 60's and 70's. But when people actually need help, our
troops and equipment are busy terrorizing and destabilizing Iraq.

Entering a Greensburg neighborhood was overwhelming. Absolute
destruction in all directions as far as the eye can see. It brought me right back
to Fallujah, Iraq, which I visited with the Christian Peacemaker Teams in
May of 2005. US Troops destroyed 70% of that city of 150,000. However, I
witnessed more people rebuilding in Fallujah than in Greensburg,
despite a much more serious military occupation and severe restrictions on
importing building materials in Fallujah. There were hardly any Greensburg
homeowners out cleaning up their property, and government agencies
seemed only focused on repairing government buildings or policing the streets.

Though we had trouble getting information or guidance on how to
volunteer, we were followed around by an Overland Park police vehicle for over an
hour. They were quite blatant about it, driving close behind us at
every turn, and slowly following us as we walked. We learned later that there
are ten Lawrence cops in Greensburg who likely recognized us from our
political activity and took the opportunity to try and intimidate us.

Government officials finally addressed the residents of Greensburg at a
large town meeting held last Friday, May 11th, under a large tent on
the edge of town. Citizens were told that they would be fully responsible
for cleaning up their property and hauling away the rubble. Aid will
largely come in the form of 2.785% loans from the Small Business Administration
(SBA), but will be based on the applicant's ability to pay. Citizens
will still be required to pay property tax on their destroyed lot; the city
is only waving the interest and other fees. FEMA is offering a maximum of
$28,200 to eligible residents, and it is clear that much of the poor
and uninsured will largely be left with nothing.

One man I spoke to, an uninsured renter, said he lost everything and is
left only with debt. We passed by a destroyed grocery store, and I
asked him if people had tried to get food in the aftermath of the storm. "I'm
not a looter" he said vehemently. Surprised, I commented that trying to
get food in a time like that is hardly looting. "There wasn't time to
get food", he said, "We had to pull people out of the rubble, and... . I lost
a friend."

We spent a few hours hauling damaged property out of one family's home.
They were actually one of the luckier ones. They lost everything, but
had full-cost insurance and will qualify for an SBA loan. Their roof was
ripped off and most the walls were destroyed. The basement (recently
remodeled for $20,000) was then flooded in the following downpour and
now reeks of mildew. The older couple survived the storm in that basement,
along with four other neighbors who didn't have basements. They'd lived
in the house for 32 years, and were hoping to leave it to their children.
As we hauled out everything from their basement, I imagined trying to
clean everything out my parent's basement and what a project that would be.
At first this family had pretty much decided they would abandon the lot
and live out the rest of their lives else ware, but after the town meeting
they're considering staying.

Stories of determination to return and rebuild were everywhere. Some
people who'd planned to move away before the storm, have now decided
that they're going to band with the rest of the community and help re-create
their city. It reminds me very much of the determination of Iraqi and
Palestinian refugees to return to their homes, also echoed by the
survivors of Hurricane Katrina from New Orleans. All of these refugees
have the right to return to their homes, and we will continue working
to make that possible.

Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebilius has vowed to make the city a "Green
City", using environmentally friendly building designs, though largely
limited to increased insulation and more efficient heating and cooling
systems. This idea reminds me of the real cause of these national
disasters. Scientists say that the recent intensification of these
storms can be linked to the global climate change caused by excessive CO2
emissions from burning fossil fuels. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were
related to this, as was the recent flooding in Missouri that damaged at
least 570 homes. Unless there is a drastic shift in US environmental
and energy policy, these storms will only get worse.

The official response will continue to be militarization and political
game-playing. Our government's actions in the Middle East make it clear
that their priorities are more death and destruction, not less. The
abandonment and criminalization of Katrina survivors, the attacks on
victims of our immigration policy disaster, and the growing crisis in
our prison-industrial complex remind us that those living on American soil
will also be targets.

It's up to grassroots movements to bring change. We must continue to
resist US war and occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan and US support for
Israeli colonization of Palestine. We must continue to develop models
to support the survivors of environmental policy disasters, such as the
Common Ground collective coordinating relief work in New Orleans.
www.commonground.com

The Kansas Mutual Aid collective based in Lawrence, KS, will be helping
coordinate grassroots relief efforts in Greensburg. Please contact us
if you would like to volunteer, help organize a group of volunteers, or
donate equipment or supplies:  kansasmutualaid@hotmail.com

We will be doing a presentation on what we saw in Greensburg and
discussing ways to get involved on Monday, May 21st at 7pm at the
Solidarity Center, 1109 Massachusetts in Lawrence, KS.

Our next big trip will be Memorial Day Weekend, May 26-28th. We have a
school bus for transportation and will arrange for accommodations.

Please get involved now to support your fellow Midwesterners, you never
know when you're going to need it.

In solidarity

-Joe Carr
Kansas Mutual Aid
 kansasmutualaid@hotmail.com
www.lawrencesolidarity.org

Thank You! 17.May.2007 00:52

JustMe

Thank you for this report & for the KMA solidarity work.