Greensburg marks 15 years since deadly EF-5 tornado
It was a Friday night -- May 4, 2007 -- when a nearly two-mile wide tornado aimed at Greensburg. The town took a direct hit.
The tornado ripped through the southwest Kansas community, killing 11 people, injuring 63 and destroying 95 percent of the town. It was rated as an EF-5 by the National Weather Service, the largest rating on the Enhanced Fujita Scale and the first in the country since the new scale was implemented.
(Above, here's an interactive map taking you through parts of town then and now.)
NAVIGATING THE STORM
As the tornado edged closer to Kiowa County, more people started to call 911. Then-dispatcher Toshia Hoover had been on the job earlier that day. She got home at 6 p.m., but she decided to return back to work to help the only other dispatcher in the office.
“We’re watching the weather, you know, watching it come for us,” Hoover said. “You never expect it to actually hit town…hit the building that you're in. We were watching it, but we had a lot of phone calls…a lot of radio traffic.”
As they were busy answering calls, Kiowa County Emergency Manager Ray Stegman had a team spotting the storm. Together, they aimed to protect the county of about 2,500 people.
“The day was just kind of an odd feeling day,” Stegman said. “Weather-wise we were in a severe weather outbreak, precautionary time. I mean, they knew that we were going to have some severe weather.”
It was a true test for Stegman. He had previously served as sheriff for the county for 8 years and 15 years in law enforcement as a whole. He became emergency manager in January 2007.
Recently, he listened to air traffic from the night. It includes communications between the field staff and 911 dispatch.
“It’s just amazing going back and listening to that whole duration of radio traffic that you forget over time hearing,” he said.
Greensburg had a 26-minute warning of the advancing storm system and supercell, including this one from the National Weather Service. The alerts were helpful with getting people to safety, as the first tornado warning was issued at 9:19 p.m. The twister entered the city’s south side by 9:45 p.m.
In the one-hour audio clip that he shared with KAKE News, you can hear the crew describing the storm and updating each other on blocking off roads beforehand. Stegman was the one who made the call to sound the tornado sirens for the county.
“At that point, I had the dispatchers turn on the sirens and keep going until of course we need to shut it off,” Stegman said. “But it came right to town to shut it off for us.”
Later, dispatch lost the radio connection. It may have been when the city lost power.
Not every message got to them, including the warning for dispatch to take cover as the tornado had entered town and was heading toward the office.
“We never heard that in dispatch,” Hoover said of the warning from Stegman and the field team. “So, I'm not sure if we just had enough going on that we missed it.”
Hoover doesn’t blame anyone for the message not getting to them. It was busy. She said the night was a blur.
“I don't recall for sure, but I know that we never heard him say that it was going to hit,” she said. “So, up until the point that we heard it start hitting the building, we still didn't realize that we were in the direct path of the tornado.”
The debris started to hit the back metal door and the bulletproof windows, but those didn’t break. Hoover and the other dispatcher made their way down to the basement. They were safe.
“All in all, it was just kind of surreal,” Stegman said. “Listening to the whole thing again, it's like wow, that really did happen.”
Before the storm, Kiowa County was developing safety plans. Stegman said he wasn’t sure if it would have made a big difference then. The tornado measured 1.7 miles wide – nearly the size of the town.
“You can never be prepared for that,” Stegman said. “We didn't even really have an emergency operations plan. That was part of what we were going to try to put together. We weren't NIMS [National Incident Management System] compliant for the county.”
CHALLENGES AFTER THE STORM
Stegman said he would react differently if a similar storm came to the community today. He kept his role as emergency manager, which then was part-time and is now a full-time position. He still gets nervous about severe weather potential.
He said one of the things he would do different would be to move assets outside the county, like emergency vehicles, so they could be of use should there be a significant weather event.
In the case of 2007, though, the emergency response was grand. Communities from across the state came in to assist. “They were already en route coming this direction. Right away,” Stegman said. “So, it was a really good feeling, seeing that everybody was there to help and coming into town to help with what we need to do.”
Wichita Battalion Chief Scott Kleinschmidt was one of those people. He had been a firefighter for 11 years at that time, and that night, his station got a call about the tornado. They deployed a team to help, which he said was pretty rare. He couldn’t recall of a time when Wichita Fire was sent to anywhere outside the county.
“They basically put us into search operations, and we spent the rest of the night door-to-door, zone-by- zone clearing the entire city,” Kleinschmidt said.
It was overwhelming, at times. On a typical fire call, Kleinschmidt said there’s a finality. Fire crews rescue people and put out the flames fast. In this case, they were looking at hundreds of homes. If they found a person who had died, they had to tag the house and move on during the grid search. They would return to recover bodies later.
Also, it was tough to navigate through town, as most landmarks were ripped apart. Street signs were gone. Temporary street signs were created later, in place of what was last there. Stegman said it was challenging, but impressive. He could see across the city because nearly every building was leveled.
“One of the positive things was knowing everybody around us,” Stegman said. “And that's probably one thing that a lot of communities need to do is know your resources that are around you too. Because it's not just going to happen to you if they come in to help or you go somewhere else to help. You need to know everybody around you. It's just It was amazing to see the amount of people that came in to help us.”
WATCHING FROM AFAR
Sara (McVay) Nuzum graduated in 2008. She went to high school in Greensburg. On the night of the storm, she was in Salina for a state forensics tournament. The team heard a big storm was rolling through home, but the group was stuck in Saline County. So, the group 40-or-so students turned on the news and watched the radar.
“You would slowly hear, 'oh this side of town is gone, that side of town is gone, oh this side of town was gone,'” Nuzum said. “Eventually you heard every side. After the fact, it makes sense because it was all of it.”
Nuzum was a junior at the time. That night, one of her classmates learned their house was taken. Nuzum lived nearby and realized her home was probably a loss too – it was.
“The scariest part was just not being able to get in touch with family,” Nuzum said. “My parents were there, my grandparents were there, my other grandpa - he was there too. Just not being able to get ahold of them for a long time. That was very stressful for everybody. A lot of praying, a lot of trusting. Everything’s going to be OK. I finally got ahold of my parents around 3 in the morning, I think. I finally got a hold of them."
Nuzum’s step-dad had a radio scanner and was listening closely to alerts. They had left town before the tornado swept through the community.
“He was hearing all the details and stuff, and ‘when we have, like, half an hour of a warning, you know it’s bad.’ They got in the car and took off,” Nuzum said.
Those five hours of not knowing, from when the storm hit before 10 p.m. to when she got in contact with her loved ones, is easily described as the “longest night ever,” Nuzum said.
“We really clung to the news,” as she detailed the night. “We were watching radar like crazy. They finally got some footage. I remember seeing the little tiny motel on the northwest side of town. A car was inside it upside down. Seeing stuff like that, hearing that was unnerving.”
It was a relief to hear her mom’s voice on the other end of the line. Her grandparents got to safety. Everyone she knew was okay. Nuzum’s mom was very matter-of-fact, saying they lost everything. Her family has carried a mostly positive attitude about the tornado, Nuzum said, which was needed in the days ahead.
SIFTING THROUGH THE DAMAGE
When the storm hit town on May 4, 2007, it was a Friday night. Residents were told they could not get access to the area until Monday – in part for safety but also because first responders were still doing checks to see if people were trapped in the storm. The National Guard blocked off the community, but Sunday, Nuzum remembers a guardsman briefly giving them permission to look at their home. They brought a trailer hoping to collect anything salvageable.
“Seeing the house for the first time is super hard,” Nuzum said. “It just doesn’t look the same anymore. Our roof was in the front hard. There were tears obviously. Again, you just pick up and keep moving. What else can you do? You can’t break down and stop. We’re gathering our stuff and starting to notice things.”
A friend was with Nuzum, who comforted her as the family sifted through the rubble. It had rained heavily on the community after the tornado, so many people suffered even greater losses. While mom focused on finding items like photographs, she encouraged everyone else to look for things like clothes or other items they could take from where their house once stood.
Perhaps most important to Nuzum was a small, white bunny. She had it since she was little. With its slightly matted face and worn bow, she still has it to this day. It's a treasured piece of her childhood.
A BRIGHTER SIDE
One thing that helped the family through it all is laughter. Even after losing so much, there are moments that make them smile.
“We had this plant that would always fall over like all the time,” Nuzum said. “You could walk by, and it would fall over – this fake tree. It drove my mom crazy. My cat would walk by, it’d fall over. Drove her nuts. It was still standing. Like, our roof was gone. Hilarious. You can’t help but laugh at that.”
While she understands that some people struggle with talking about the tornado, her mom has taught her not to dwell on things.
“You can’t live that way,” Nuzum said. “You have to move forward. You can’t let that ruin your whole life. That’s one event. One time. We’ve got to keep going. I admired her and just the way she taught us through that. This is how you handle a hard thing, you don’t just don’t break down and let it destroy you. Find ways to work through it and just keep going.”
One other ironic moment, Nuzum noted, was when her mom was trying to be careful before the tornado approached. She told her husband, Nuzum's step-dad, that they should take his car instead.
“She said, ‘oh, let’s take your car because I don’t want to get hail damage on my car.’ So, they took his car and left and the whole garage roof was on top of her car,” Nuzum said. “That was hilarious. You were trying to get out of some damage, but…just kidding.”
A SURPRISING SENIOR YEAR
Months later, Nuzum started senior year unlike any other. Students were taking classes in trailers, but they had the comfort of having the same teachers and classmates around. It’s also a smaller school, so that familiarity was good too. There were 18 members in her graduating class, which were included in about 100 kids in high school.
Then, there was an unexpected change. The school announced it was moving the graduation ceremony to the one-year anniversary of the tornado. Nuzum said some students were annoyed by it, initially, because they thought it was just to connect their moment to the storm. Little did they know the adjustment was to accommodate a special guest: the President of the United States. Of course, by the time they realized who was arriving, there was a lot of excitement of the earlier ceremony date.
On May 4, 2008, President George W. Bush arrived in town in a motorcade, passing by flags lining the streets.
“When the class of 2008 walks across the stage today, you will send a powerful message to our nation. Greensburg, Kansas, is back, and its best days are ahead,“ Bush said at the ceremony.
He spoke about his visit from a year before, including the incredible spirit he encountered while walking through the area.
“The leaders of your town understand that out of the devastation of the storm comes the opportunity to rebuild with a free hand and a clean slate,” Bush said. “They envision a future of where new jobs flourish. Where every public building meets the highest environmental standards.”
Before walking across the stage to get their diplomas and shake hands with the president, he left students with a message of hope.
“As we watch the Class of 2008 graduate today, the dark clouds from one year ago have parted, and have made way for a brighter future,” he said before a crowd of hundreds of people. “We’ll always hold in our hearts those who lost their lives, but with faith and he who rides above the mighty storm, we go fourth with confidence that Greensburg will rise again.”
You can read the president's commencement address by clicking here.
KAKE News did reach out to the former president to be a part of the '65 Minutes' documentary. While he did not have time to offer an on-camera interview or statement, he did leave his best wishes with the community.
A PIECE OF HISTORY
The town certainly has found its way to flourish. Driving through the community today is a bit surreal, as Nuzum reflects on things that have changed. It’s been exciting to see the progress through the years, she said.
One thing Nuzum was happy to see unscathed is a piece of the drug store: a soda fountain. One of her favorite memories from high school was skipping part of class and getting a drink from the soda fountain.
“We’d be like, ‘Ms. Mack, we’re going to get sodas.’ And she’d be like, ‘No, get back in here.’ We’d just leave. She loved us way too much,” Nuzum said, laughing while telling the story.
“She was way too sweet to us. She should have been way harder on us,” Nuzum continued. “We’d just walk down a few blocks and get sodas and come back. Then we’d start class.”
Some of Nuzum’s wedding photos are snapped at the soda fountain, which now resides at the Kiowa County Historical Museum and Soda Fountain, south of city hall. She had her wedding party – her husband, four bridesmaids and four groomsmen – smiling big for the camera.
“We had the guys all behind the bar, like they were making us sodas,” she described. “We were sitting on the bar stools. We had to have that.”
In the spring of 2007, first responders across the state had met and discussed ways to better streamline resources to other communities. The goal was to build a network that could provide assistance in times of need. When the tornado hit Greensburg weeks later, the unfortunate event helped highlight the value of collaboration, Kleinschmidt said.
“It really drove home the things that we had pre-identified were actually things we needed to work on,” he said. “What is what was born out of Greensburg, and here we are 15 years later, and we have a very robust rescue program within with throughout the state. Whether it's at the regional level, the state level or at the individual department level. It's really grown leaps and bounds.”
“You don't want to see anything bad happen to anybody, but bad things are going to happen,” he continued. “You just want to be able to go and help those people with all the experience and the equipment and the things that you've done throughout your career.”
One thing that changed is how first responders from the Wichita Fire Department are deployed. Kleinschmidt brings his decades of experience into training sessions he teaches for the Special Operations Unit. Before, crews would get sent out, return home and then go back again. Now, they focus on working operational periods, Kleinschmidt detailed. For example, a team is on-site for 72 hours, and they may work 12 hours, rest for another 12 hours and continue the rotations.
“It's more efficient,” Kleinschmidt explained. “Because, I can bring a group of guys in for one, two, three, four days. They're moving in one direction versus changing it up a whole bunch during that timeframe -- so that's the benefit of it. Then, once they're done to do that, we can send a new group in. Those guys don't, most of them, they don't even go back. They did their 72. Now, they're done. Somebody else will go do their 72.”
Wichita Fire’s Special Ops has a special mobile command and communications unit, which carries state-of-the-art technology. In it, they can create a pop-up dispatch center, use day and night-enabled cameras to search for victims, serve as a hub for drone camera operators and much more.
The unit can be shared with communities that need them, like tornado that hit Andover in late April 2022. The team, as a whole, gets deployed to tornadoes, hurricanes and other disasters out-of-state.
A HISTORIC NIGHT
On the night of the storm, scientific history was made. For 65 minutes, the tornado ripped through 28 miles of land. “Greensburg just got in the way,” said meteorologist and storm surveyor Tim Marshall.
Marshall has been studying storms since he was 9 years old, when his Illinois hometown as hit by a tornado. Eventually, he went on to study storms by majoring in meteorology at Northern Illinois University and finishing graduate school at Texas Tech. He’s stayed in Texas ever since, and has become a big name in weather research. He started survey damage since the mid-70’s, and his first publications date back to the early 80’s.
He was a part of a team that helped craft the modern Enhanced Fujita Scale (EF-scale.) It helped updated the Fujita Scale to include additional measurements for storms. It was developed by researchers, including Marshall, from 2000 to 2004. The National Weather Service started using it by February 2007. Greensburg was its first EF-5 storm – the most violent – after adoption of the scale. Maximum winds were estimated at 205 miles per hour. It was the first deadly storm in southwest Kansas since 1967. Damage in the town of 1,383 people was estimated at $250 million.
“It's imperative to me that I had to go there,” Marshall said when he learned of the storm’s potential strength. “And, especially when I heard that EF five rating there could be the first EF5 and so I had a go there's no question about it.”
Marshall drove from Texas to Kansas to collected data first-hand. He spent three days in town, doing aerial and ground surveys. You can read a summary of the damage survey in this attached document.
“I survey damage routinely, and it's always numbing to see that kind of level of destruction,” he said. “I mean, schools are no longer usable. So, you can only imagine the impact that had to the kids and the town. And, of course, people lost their homes. Everything that's gone. So, that the great glimmer of hope was...the fact that many people survived.”
As an engineer, Marshall also uses his expertise into the structure of buildings and the future of how they’re built.
“One of the things I look for are the failure points in these buildings, and it's really boils down to the ABCs: the anchors, the braces and the connections,” Marshall said. “So, looking at how the roof is attached to the wall, looking how the walls are attached to the floor, the foundation. Those are key critical components that I look for. I'm looking for straps. I'm looking for anchors. I'm looking for those, how are those connected, how the nails connected. And, that way I can figure out how the building fell apart.”
Even today, some images of the storm stick with him.
“The buildings failed, like I knew they would fail,” Marshall said. “So, there wasn't anything too surprising that had come out of it. You know, there were some things like vehicles that were not tossed or not rolled, which was interesting to me. But, when you get these big wide tornadoes, it tends to kind of just spin them around rather than lofting them great distances. So, that's one of the things that we found. Of course, the water tower failed because you know, and that's another key indicator for us. So, we went there and looked at that right next to The Big Well and then there was a farm implement dealer that was hit with a lot of tractors, and with it that damage as well. Then, about northwest of town, the tornado kind of hooked to the left and actually stalled for a little bit and there's a lot of damage trees were knobbed down to the ground there. So, it was very intense damage on the northwest side of town.”
To this day, Marshall continues to make stops in Kansas as he chases storms and studies the damage left behind. He’s made stops in Greensburg, as it’s not just significant history for the community, but it’s also significant to him too. He wants to see it continue to grow.
“I want to see the progress,” he said. “So, like a year after Greensburg, I went back to Greensburg and I wanted to see how was the rebuilding process going and it was a little slower than I expected because they went ahead and elected the green theme, you know where they were building back on the green theme. But, over the years I have made visits back to Greensburg. I've gone back to the museum several times there that they had The Big Well, and I just feel kind of like a kinship to the town.”
WARNINGS FROM A HURRICANE
A couple years before the storm, there was worry for the state’s resources.
Maj. Gen. Tod Bunting, the head of the Kansas National Guard, said larger equipment and manpower were needed. In a 2005 Associated Press news article, he said one problem was with sophisticated radar equipment and large military vehicles that were not returned from Iraq. The state had 100 big trucks, but during that time, was down to 30. The state also had to borrow radar equipment to train staff because all five units were overseas. Those radar stations are used to pinpoint enemy forces.
He wasn’t the only one concerned.
Gov. Kathleen Sebelius feared how the weight of the Iraq War would have on the states. States made big contributions to the war.
“One of the complicating factors was that we had deployed, as did virtually every state in the country in 2007, National Guard troops to Iraq,” Sebelius said. “About half the boots on the ground, in 2007 and 2008, were coming out of National Guard. Not only were they deployed individually out of these communities, but their equipment went with them. And in our case, what we lost were engineers, we lost helicopter pilots, we lost and we lost that equipment.”
Several governors became vocal about the impact of combat. Kansas’ equipment was among $1.2 billion in equipment deployed overseas. Some questions how the U.S. could handle a catastrophe. Then, a true test came by late August 2005: Hurricane Katrina.
The large and destructive Category 5 Hurricane left $125 billion in damage. New Orleans was hit hard by the storm, which led to floods and evacuations. Homes were not salvageable and people were left with nothing.
It’s one of the worst natural disasters in modern history. The emergency response was critical, and the State of Louisiana received some help before the hurricane made landfall on Aug. 29, 2005. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assisted in different ways, including with a logistics team to prepare for things ahead of time, rescue operations for those stranded and a mortuary team with refrigerated trucks, should anyone die. More than 1,800 people passed away as a result of the storm.
Of the 60,000 people left stranded by the hurricane, more than 33,5000 were saved by the U.S. Coast Guard. About 58,000 National Guard personnel were deployed from all 50 states to assist. Congress authorized $62.3 billion in aid for victims.
FEMA provided housing assistance to more than 700,000 people who applied for help. There were some challenges in the setup for housing. For example, at its peak, there were more than 45,000 temporary housing units provided to disaster survivors in Mississippi after the storm, USA Today reported in August 2015.
“In response to Hurricane Katrina, FEMA conducted the largest housing operation in our country’s history,” said Mary Langenbacker, a spokeswoman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s recovery office on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
While government-issued trailers helped thousands of people who were left homeless, several challenges followed. The trailers, for example, had elevated levels of formaldehyde – a carcinogen that can cause breathing problems, the USA Today article notes. The chemical, however, is commonly found in building materials.
Many people who used the trailers after Hurricane Katrina complained of problems, including headaches, nosebleeds and difficulty breathing, a September 2017 Associated Press article reports. “Government tests on hundreds of trailers in Louisiana and Mississippi found formaldehyde levels that were, on average, about five times higher than in most modern homes,” the article shares.
The problem led to lawsuits against the federal government and travel manufacturers. In the end, 21 FEMA trailer manufacturers agreed to pay $14.8 million to resolve claims. A federal judge dismissed all claims against the federal government, ruling FEMA couldn't be held liable for deciding to use travel trailers after Hurricane Katrina and Rita, which also saw similar issues.
AN ILL-PREPARED STATE
After a visit to Iraq during Thanksgiving 2005, Sebelius was frustrated equipment wouldn’t be coming back after Kansas soldiers completed their tour of duty.
“I intend to bring that message back, that we really do have to missions,” she said in a Nov. 30, 2005, article in The Iola Register. “One is to make sure that Kansas citizens are safe and sound. We need that equipment replaced here at home, so we don’t leave our citizens in a lurch.”
During that visit overseas, she noted there were tornadoes in 15 counties and a blizzard brewing in western Kansas. Homes were damaged at Fort Riley.
The equipment can serve a greater purpose in those moments of disaster, she said. It became vastly apparent by May 2007. A powerful EF-5 tornado wiped out the small town of Greensburg. The event changed the face of the community, but its immediate needs stood out. The Kansas Adjutant General’s office created a report of the storm and said some of the early challenges, included:
- No power
- No water
- No buildings to conduct operations
- Continued storms after the tornado
- Few tornado shelters – the courthouse and a few other basements were used for emergency workers, as the rest of the town was evacuated
Sebelius said federal help made a huge difference in this storm. Unfortunately, timing mattered. She realized this during her visits to Greensburg.
“We somewhat benefited from the fact that Katrina had been two years earlier,” the former governor shared in a recent interview with KAKE News,” The federal response to Katrina was so botched and so seemingly callous. That if anything, we didn't have to work super hard to get the president and the federal government to pay a lot of attention.”
Neighboring communities helped balance needs, too. However, Sebelius was hoping the state would have better support for itself, having written letters to President George W. Bush and the U.S. Secretary of Defense, months leading to this event.
“We told you this might happen, and we really need you to ramp up the supply because we don't have the staff we need to go into towns like Greensburg and clean it up,” she said, referring to what she voiced prior to the storm. “We don't have the equipment. We don't have the support. And again, that was helpful in getting their attention.”
The city's substantial loss captured the heart of the country, though, with President Bush making visits, including days after the storm. There was also the 20-episode docuseries, Greensburg, crafted by Leonardo DiCaprio and Craig Piligian, which documented the city being reconstructed with sustainability in mind.
The tragic circumstances helped put the town back on the map.
Some say the surprising focus is how the city would rebuild. Following the tornado, they focused on being sustainable. There are green efforts in city buildings and homes, as the City of Greensburg website highlights:
- Greensburg is home to the most LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) buildings per capita in the U.S.
- It is the first city in the U.S. to use all LED streetlights.
- Greensburg is 100 percent renewable, 100 percent of the time. All of the electricity used in the City of Greensburg is wind energy.
- Water is a very precious resource, and it conserves every drop with low flow fixtures and native plantings in the town's landscaping. It also collects rainwater for use in irrigation and in some facilities, as grey water in toilets.
- Greensburg has single-stream curbside recycling.
“Greensburg is the only town I know that have done this building better, and they've taken this initiative to the extreme,” Marshall said. “I went up there and saw what they call an ICF home, which is an Insulated Concrete Form home, being constructed. I went in there, and I looked at this, and they had the roof trusses that were strapped down to the top of this poured concrete wall. I mean, that's very strong connection. I think they're thinking about, there's a chance that they could get hit with another tornado in the future. So, they want to be prepared, and they want to have buildings built better. I commend that.”
The storm forced the town to think differently, but it’s come with benefits.
Today, the city draws 100 percent of its electricity from a wind farm. Energy efficiency runs through town, including in the school classrooms, at city hall, in the medical center and library. The community also offers incentives for people who maximize on this at home.
City Administrator Stacy Barnes said she'd love for people to visit and talk about the opportunity to move to Greensburg. She said they have land bank property available and a housing-incentive program for those who want to build a home, among other amenities.
Greensburg Mayor Matt Christenson echoes the value of living in a small town with a big heart. The tornado is just part of its story.
“It destroyed the vast majority of homes and businesses and infrastructure here in the city, and we had to rebuild pretty much from scratch,” Christenson said. “So, the town you see today is very much not the town that people knew for 100 plus years of its initial existence. We've done our best to rebuild the community as best we can and make it a great place to live – not just for people now but for future generations.”
Christenson was working on his master’s degree at Kansas State University when the storm hit. He returned home to help his parents rebuild their house. He and his dad were able to build the house back on the foundation where it once stood. As that wrapped up, he was offered a job to help with reconstruction of county facilities. It later led to a job focusing on financing the construction projects for the county, as billions of dollars had to go into public facilities to get things running again, Christenson said.
Though he planned to leave by the end of summer, Christenson stuck around.
A silly bet sealed the deal, too.
By 2008, there was an election for city council. A friend dared him to run, and he did. He served on city council and eventually ran for mayor. He’s served in the role for about four years.
Christenson said he’s proud to serve the community and to see its continued growth. While people can still see damage the storm left behind – a set of stairs leading up to a former church, trees stripped down to the base, house foundations left on empty lots and piles of bricks – the rebuild process continues to this day. The city has a completely new infrastructure. It got new water system and new electrical new streets, which has been a benefit, Christenson said.
“It's kind of the silver lining because a lot of smaller towns have aging infrastructure that's challenging to maintain,” he said. “We're in much better position.”
That position is vital, as Greensburg weathers another task: growth. The city population before the storm was near 1,300 people. It has about 850 residents today.
“Greensburg’s greatest challenges now are not at all related to the storm. It's related to just the economic challenges that small towns face all over the country,” Christenson said. “Just the demographic trends for decades and decades and decades have been towards more urbanization. Small towns are getting smaller, larger cities are getting bigger; and, it's just trying to again, foster economic development and opportunity in rural America is our biggest challenges now.”
Christenson said the community is filled with a lot of appeal, though, with state-of-the-art school buildings, newer facilities and other incentives to get people to plant roots in town and stay, just like he did. The tornado may have changed things, but the people make the town.
“The thing I'm most proud of about Greensburg is most definitely the people,” he said. “It was a strong community at the time the tornado, and I'd say it's a stronger community now. Just that experience of the tornado – going through the tornado and rebuilding after the tornado – definitely brings the community together. I think we're a very active community, a very friendly community. And definitely go the extra mile for our friends and neighbors if they ever need anything. Seeing the community come together after the tornado is what I'm proudest of. And we've got great facilities we have great infrastructure but I think the people are what I'd say I'm proud of stuff.”
2022 STORIES & INTERVIEWS
*You can see additional footage and interviews on the KAKE+ app.
AIR TRAFFIC DURING STORM
The Kiowa County Sheriff's office released audio, this year, of the air traffic from the evening of the storm. Here, we listen to emergency dispatchers, storm spotters and staff during an hour that the tornado hit the community. Viewer discretion is advised.
THE BIG WELL
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2007 STORM FOOTAGE & RESCUE VIDEO
Storm chaser Eric Duncan captures footage from tornadoes and other weather events across the country. He was in Greensburg on the night of the tornado, and he helped people in the rubble. Here's some footage.
PRESIDENT BUSH 2008 GRADUATION
The president visited the community following the storm, and he helped speak and give diplomas to the 2008 graduates.
10-YEAR ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL
On the 10-year-anniversary, in 2017, KAKE News put together special reports, taking the community to the western Kansas town throughout the day. Here are clips from our coverage back then: