Kansas Tornado: Americans Need Help
- Kansas Mutual Aid is helping with disaster relief in the wake of the
devastating and colossal tornado that hit Greensburg, Kansas. The town
has been simply obliterated. Read KMA member Dave Strano's report below.
Somewhere over the Rainbow:
Kansas Mutual Aid, Greensburg, Kansas
by Dave Strano - kansasmutualaid @ hotmail.com
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
First Aid supplies
Water and Food (non-perishable) for volunteers heading down
Chainsaws and Gasoline
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,
Kansas Mutual Aid member
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