Good Luck

June 14th, 2021

shelter house article 2====FROM: May 9, 2007====


BY: RACHEL COLEMAN, Southwest Daily Times

Thanks to quick action by Liberal and Seward County emergency management, firefighters from Liberal and Seward County arrived at Greensburg just a couple hours after the tornado hit the small town Friday night. When the truck he rode in arrived, said Seward County volunteer firefighter Pete Wright, "it was incredible to see how many first responders were already there." The temporary command center was set up at the John Deere tractor dealership at the west end of town, "and it was packed with firemen, buses, cops, EMTs from all over," Wright recalled. "I was totally amazed."

Although the circumstances were chaotic, the rescue efforts were well-organized, Wright said; workers had clear orders and a good understanding of the chain of command within 10 to 15 minutes. He attributed the organizational structure to changes prompted by Homeland Security measures.

Following 9/11, fire departments that receive federal funding participate in NIMS (National Instant Management System) training, which teaches emergency responders to "speak the same language" in their coding system and command structure. The program is designed to eliminate misunderstanding and confusion so all responders understand the directives and work in a unified way. Wright said in Greensburg, the system worked: "It was just absolutely phenomenal."

County fire chief Mike Rice had put together the Seward County crew. Greg Standard and John Steckle of Seward County's Fire Department and Emergency Management were already in Greensburg as well, and Liberal Rescue 1, the city truck, was just 30 minutes behind the county crew. When it arrived, Liberal firefighter Skeety Poulton assisted Greensburg's fire chief, who had taken on the position in January.


By the time the western Kansas crews arrived, most of the people who could get out of their homes had already done so, and the town was far from deserted.

"On the way there, I didn't know what to expect. I had kind of pictured nobody there, but that wasn't the case," Wright said. "People were out, but there was no electricity, and no gas smell. Whoever took care of the utilities did a great job."

Strangely, the most surprising thing about the devastated town was the smell, Wright said: "When you think about how it smells when you step on fallen pine needles and then you think about every tree in town being stripped of its leaves and bark, it makes sense. The overwhelming thing was the smell of fresh wood. It was like someone was holding a bottle of Pine Sol under your nose."

Both the city and county fire trucks have "exceptionally good lights" that enabled workers to focus on the task of search and rescue, Wright said. The crews began to work through the town one lot at a time, calling out at what used to be homes, "Hello, fire department. Can anybody hear me?"

At one house, which had essentially been torn in two, they heard an answer: "Yes, I can hear you."

The woman's voice, Wright said, came from upstairs, "and when this lady opened up the door of the room she was in, it was like a cartoon where there's nothing in front of the door. She was just standing there looking down at us from the edge of the second floor. We said, 'Ma'am, you need to leave your house,' and she told us she couldn't, because her husband was asleep and wouldn't wake up."

Concerned that the man might be dead ­ and the wife in shock ­ the firefighters went inside to investigate.


"Well, he was really asleep. He woke up and they came out," Wright said with a chuckle. It was a pleasant moment amid so much destruction. Although the town was largely destroyed, "nobody was wailing and crying about losing their homes," he said. "Everybody was just thankful to be alive. Losing your favorite pair of shoes or your furniture is pretty insignificant compared to losing your life."

So in that stripped-away, torn-up town, he said, "I met a bunch of really happy people."

When morning came, "it was pretty amazing to see the things the tornado had done ­ a pickup bed in a living room, a van on top of a motel."

By contrast, at least one basement Wright saw was "almost pristine. It was pretty weird. The upstairs was gone, but there was an ironing board set up in the basement with a doily on it and pictures still on the walls."

A lifelong resident of the Oklahoma Panhandle and Southwest Kansas, Wright doesn't worry about tornadoes as much as he does car accidents. After seeing Greensburg, however, he said, "I really want a basement."

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