Little did Debbie Boyles know she and husband Tom were leaving the relative safety of the east side of town as they sped from their Poplar Street home toward her mother-in-law’s house on Bay Street as the killer tornado approached Greensburg Friday night.
The couple was actually heading into the teeth of the mile-wide twister that appears to have traveled straight down the middle of town, south to north, likely centered between Main Street and Bay. So why risk the trip?
“She has a basement, and we don’t,” Boyles said. “After it was all over her house was gone, and we just lost some siding and shingles. But who knew?”
Joined by three others and a pet, the six adults squeezed into a dugout cellar off to the side of the basement, a move that likely spared their lives.
“If we’d stayed out in the main part of the basement, well, I don’t want to think about it,” Boyles said quietly. “It was scary enough where we were. I could feel the dirt and chips of concrete hitting my face and I began to wonder if the vent on top of the cellar was going to hold. I remember Tom yelling, ‘If that vent goes, we’ll be sucked out.’
“But it held. Being in that little space is what saved us.”
Another mother-in-law, Judy Reed, is the mother of Amy Fleener, sixth-grade teacher at Greensburg and coach of the Greensburg/Haviland high school softball team. Reed recalls son-in-law J. Wynn Fleener having just finished a remodeling of her kitchen Friday afternoon.
“He really did a nice job,” Reed said Saturday from the shelter set up at Haviland High School. “At least I got to enjoy it for a few hours Friday afternoon. It would have been nice to have gotten to use it, though.”
Reed remembers going to the basement and taking shelter under a craft table while pulling a quilt over her head. She also remembers a twist she gave to a quick prayer uttered as the winds began to tear at the house above her.
“I said, ‘Lord, I don’t need you to hold me in the palm of your hands,’” Reed said. ‘I need you to turn those hands of yours over and cover me. And he did. It became just the most peaceful thing I’ve ever felt. I just knew that I was covered and I felt safe, even as I watched my house go right over the top of me and blow away to who knows where.”
As it turned out the providential hands covering Reed proved to be the walls of her basement falling in on top of her.
“I have lots of shelves and another inside wall and it all came in towards me and helped me keep from getting sucked out,” Reed continued. “I got what I asked for. Sometimes you do get what you ask for.”
Other survivors of the Greensburg tornado were feeling powerless in the aftermath of the disaster that took their homes. William King, an employee of Heft and Sons Construction, voiced his objection to being evacuated from his home shortly after the tornado hit, unable to reclaim treasures he’d left behind.
“I’m a taxpayer and that’s my property and I want my stuff,” King stated. “I mean, I’ve got pictures, birth certificates, and things like that that are getting ruined by all this rain that keeps falling. Some of it can be replaced, but family heirlooms and antiques can’t be.
“I’ve got a daughter in California and I’ve only got a few pictures of her. I want those, and they won’t let us back in to get them.”
While the vast majority of houses in town were destroyed, a few made it through the ordeal nearly as well as those living there.
J. Wynn Fleener, Judy Reed’s son-in-law, runs the local funeral home with his wife, Amy. Other than some windows and a deck awning, Fleener’s home retained most of its hardware.
“We were pretty fortunate,” Fleener commented. “From what I could tell we still had a roof on the house. Most of the windows were broken out on the main floor, and there was some damage to a bathroom wall, but it’s a stucco house. Maybe that’s why it held up so well.”
While he was optimistic his home would again be inhabitable, Fleener shared King’s concern over the sometimes heavy rain that continued to fall throughout the weekend.
“With all this rain we’re getting, it can’t help,” he said. “We’ll just have to wait and see what happens with that.”
His house, of course, was far from the only building in town with which Fleener was concerned. While it was hard to make a thorough assessment in the pitch black following the tornado’s jaunt through town, Fleener was heartened by the “east part of the building looking structurally sound.” The damage, however, is extensive enough to forego funeral arrangements for some time, a fact that seemed to gnaw at his wife.
“With the fatalities we’ve had from this, it’s just really eating at me that we can’t help their families,” Amy said. “That our job. That’s what we do. And now we can’t do it.”
What survivors can do presently is speculate as to what the immediate future may hold for them and others of the stricken community.
Some, such as the Fleener’s see at least the possibility of an opportunity for such advancements as greater county cooperation in the coming months and years. A newly-elected member of Greensburg’s school board, J. Wynn thought for a moment when asked how Friday’s carnage had changed the prospects for his time on that body.
“I think we’re going to have to put a lot of thought into what we do, and it’s an opportunity to make some nice changes,” he said. I think, personally, that we ought to look at doing more with the neighboring communities, like we’ve done with the softball team this year (Haviland and Greensburg are playing as a combined team this spring).
“We’ve got three communities in this county that could go together to be one school. I don’t know if I’m a proponent of that necessarily, but I think it’s something that we ought to consider as an option to bring us back. I’ve walked by the school and there’s not much left.”
Fleener’s wife sounded a similar note, saying, “I think we have an opened door that I think we certainly need to look at. The softball thing has gone very well. I think that’s a precursor of things to come. We should pursue it.”
There is, of course, the grim reality of pursuits that may very well have come to an end. While Amy Fleener spoke of hoping she and her husband can “put the funeral home back together,” she went on to express her concern over “how many people are not going to be able to put things back together. I guess we’ll just wait and see.”
The owner of a Main Street beauty salon, The Last Tangle, Debbie Boyles expressed a similar concern, knowing she likely won’t be cutting hair anytime soon.
“I have no shop to go to Monday morning, except to salvage a few things,” she said. “I have no job to go to Monday. No one does, unless they work out of town.”
With her husband Tom in the remodeling/carpentry business, Boyles knows he’ll likely have a steady stream of work for some time.
“I won’t have anything to do for a while, but help Tom,” she said. “That’s really not what I want to do, but what else is there right now?”