Archive for Thursday, May 17, 2007

Greensburg: ‘You just can’t believe it’

May 17, 2007

Even though they've seen what tornados can do, nothing prepared Ron and Mary Lou Klein for what they saw last week in Greensburg.

"Even if you stood there, you wouldn't believe it," said Ron Klein.

His sister, Marsha Klein and her family, have lived in Greensburg for around 20 years. Their home was all but destroyed by the F5 tornado on May 4 that left 95 percent of the buildings gone in the town of 1,500 in western Kansas. Three walls of the kitchen still stood after the storm. That was all.

"There's no way to describe it," said Ron.

"Even the smell," added Mary Lou. "The creosote from the co-op and freezers full of decaying meat."

The Kleins spent a week in Greensburg helping his sister and other families with the massive clean-up effort. They returned to Baldwin City Saturday. Mary Lou is the pastor at St. John's United Church of Christ near Worden. She couldn't sleep upon returning and wrote late into the night. Her thoughts appear in a guest column on page A-5, along with a photo of the devastation.

There were so many sights, sounds and smells that the couple can't get out of their minds.

"Tires were blown completely off the trucks that were turned over," said Ron. "I can't believe what kind of force it took to do that."

"Their fishing boat was there, but the trailer wasn't," she said. "It was found three blocks away."

And, they'd experienced this before.

"I was there for the Hoisington F3 tornado years ago, but it wasn't even close to what this was," he said.

"Nothing compared to this," she added.

In one of the oddities of the week in Greensburg, Mary Lou saw an old friend who was working for the Salvation Army, Cindy Ehler of Ark City.

"Her father still lives in Holyrood (in western Kansas) where I used to pastor," she said. "I buried her mother and baptized her kids. When I saw her get off the Salvation Army bus, we fell together.

"She's worked hurricanes in Florida and Hurricane Katrina," she said. "That wasn't as bad as this."

Of course, there were good items in the unbelievable list, too.

"What I can't believe is there weren't more people killed," said Ron. "But, the people got in their storm cellars and basements."

Over the years, the Kleins had gone to Greensburg many times, for graduations, weddings, family reunions and others. Mary Lou realizes that most people had never heard of Greensburg before May 4, much less been there. What people see now is the wide-spread devastation. That's not what the charming town was.

"There were so many glorious brick buildings and homes," she said. "The downtown was vibrant. A lot of small towns in western Kansas aren't like that."

Other amazing scenes from the stay come back to the couple. Marsha's 50-year-old, antique set of pink Wolverine toy appliances were found amid the rubble.

"They were flattened," said Mary Lou. "Any of our age knows what they were. We all wanted them."

"Irreplaceable," added Ron.

So, he took it upon himself to bring them back to Baldwin City and try to fix them. Remarkably, he has been able to restore them fairly well.

"These were under tons of debris of what used to be their garage," he said.

"I thought it would be better if we threw it out if Ron couldn't fix it," she said. "Spare her a little grief.

An antique China set was also recovered and -- possibly the most important item -- hand-written recipes from her mother were found.

"To Marsha, it was priceless," she said.

The community-wide church service conducted there touched Mary Lou. Ron was amazed by other items.

"The tightness of the security was good. You didn't worry about setting anything down. So few people were let in," he said. "The debris field all around town was unbelievable."

But, that will change.

"Of all the things that clutch your heart, when we were coming home was the burn pits," she said of areas used to get rid of the massive debris. "Just burning and burning and burning."

But, the harshest memory they had was seeing Marsha watching after everything had been removed from around what had been their long-time home and the bulldozer took over. The thought of it choked Mary Lou up, tears welling in her eyes.

"You should have seen her face when that bulldozer tore into the house," she said sobbing. "That was your story."

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