Hatteberg's People - Greensburg Tornado Anniversary

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Sunday, May 13, 2012

On Hatteberg's People, in Greensburg, Kansas it was a weekend of remembering and celebrating how far the town has come from the devastating tornado of five years ago. No one could imagine what happened and no one could imagine the spirit of the community.

In the dark days after the May 5 tornado that killed 11 people and destroyed 95 percent of Greensburg, few thought the town could ever come back. Emergency preparedness director Ray Stegman remembers the night lives changed and a town died.

"I didn't think it would ever come back. There was just too much gone. Everything here was completely soaked by the rain that came through the following day and the day after that. The chance of survival by coming back here was just very bleak," said Stegman.

When the tornado hit Greensburg, Stegman was the part-time emergency management director. He remembers watching the storm approach. He told the dispatcher to turn on the tornado sirens and to leave them on.

"One of our fireman also reported that his house had been hit, so we pretty much knew that it went straight downtown. As soon as the sun started coming up, we knew at that point, we were in serious trouble. The town is gone. Where do we go? What do we do? We had no idea at that time that we would be able to come back the way we did," he said.

Now, Ray is Greensburg's full-time emergency management director. Five years ago, few would have believed how far the town has come, including Ray.

"It's incredible, it's simply incredible," he said. "Greensburg is no longer Greensburg as we knew it. It's a new Greensburg."

But as the planning began, there were questions.

"Would anybody pick up and move to a town where there was no infrastructure, no county services or city government in place. Most people wouldn't. But it was the people who stayed here who helped bring that back," he said.

Five years ago, no one would have believed Greensburg today. Its signature Big Well tourist attraction is about to open with a new building. A movie theater and community auditorium are firmly underway, as well as a new city hall, a library and media center, an art center and new business incubator and many, many more buildings.

Comparing scenes from the days following the tornado to today is a powerful reminder of the resiliency of the human spirit

"Everything from front to back was completely destroyed," said Stegman.

Today, from the hospital to the high school, those new buildings just keep rising, but no one is complacent, including Ray, who just a few weeks ago came face to face with another tornado on the outskirts of Greensburg.

"It came up behind me. I was watching another cell. I didn't realize it was there," he said.

That tornado missed Greensburg. Today, residents look to the future, but remember the past.

"We live day to day now. Don't take for granted what you've got. Definitely enjoy life more," he said.

Stegman is very proud of Greensburg and the people who decided to make it their home. A little over 1,500 lived in Greensburg prior to the tornado. Now, the population is half of that but growing every day.

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