In most spots it’s difficult to tell where the debris from one home stops and the next begins. GateHouse Media News Service writer Emily Arkin spent the day Monday walking through the destroyed town of Greensburg, Kansas, talking to residents as they dug through what remained of their homes and businesses. SEE VIDEO REPORT.


As residents returned to town for the first time Monday, they found a scene more alarming than the sirens that sounded Friday night alerting them to the powerful tornado that leveled Greensburg.

A heavily damaged Kiowa County Courthouse on the south end of town and a concrete silo to the north serve as two of the largest remaining landmarks for the town's 1,400 residents after the F-5 tornado with estimated winds of 205 mph swept a mile-wide path through the town.

In place of street signs, spray paint on the pavement directs drivers and pedestrians. Pummeled vehicles peek out from the rubble and scattered remains of homes. Trees stripped of their leaves and broken like twigs line block after block.

In most spots it's difficult to tell where the debris from one home stopsand the next begins.

"I was standing outside watching the storm, and there was a lightning strike and that's when I saw it. It was a block away. It was a solid wall."  — George Towner, an East Wisconsin Avenue

"In all my life, I've never seen a tornado. The first freakin' one and it's an F-5."  — Kay Towner, an East Wisconsin Avenue resident

"It's overwhelming. There are too many things coming at you and you don't know what to keep or if the stain will come out or whatever. That's why I have my sister to help me." — Rhonda Hammonds, a South Walnut resident

"We were all huddled in the basement together. I'm not sure who was scared the most." — Jeanie Kile, a South Spruce resident

"This is a total disaster. It is a difficult thing to see and I'm sure amuch more difficult thing to live through." — U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kansas

"I've got employees who have lost their homes. I've lost my home. We're going to bring people back. We got to get reorganized, we got to build our government back up, we've got to be a leader, we've got to help folks get together and begin that process." — City Administrator Steve Hewitt

She and her family dug through the rubble Monday, the first time people not associated with search and rescue efforts were allowed in Greensburg since the town was evacuated Friday. A young man was able to retrieve items from the family's destroyed vehicles. And despite warnings against entering the home, sitting at least 15 feet from the basement it once topped, Staats' husband made his way into the wreckage.

Rhonda Hammond didn't have the option to enter her new home on South Walnut.Instead, she dug through shards of the wood home, finding the occasional treasure.

"I'm finding more than I thought I would," she said, showing off several bracelets she had unearthed. "It's sad. It's like the stuff that made it you don't want, and the stuff you do want is destroyed."

Hammond also had found several rings buried in her muddy yard."But, you know, I can't go over every inch of the yard," she said, knowing that she will eventually have to let many of her belongings go.

The one thing Hammond desperately wanted to locate one way or the other washer dog Toby. Sadly, she found the pet dead in the debris.

The last time George and Kay Towner of East Wisconsin Avenue saw their home it was still standing. But that was Friday night.

"I'm just hoping it's still standing," George Towner said, noting that itwas in bad shape at the time.

The couple had already located their van, though. Once parked in front of thetown's senior center, where they took cover during the tornado, it perched up top the toppled block walls of the building afterward.

In all of the chaos, residents of the town were finding support.

Owners of one business, one of only three remaining, have opened their building to folks who have recovered their belongings but have nowhere to store the items.

The Staats family has found temporary housing in nearby Pratt through a local contractor with an open rental.

And an overwhelmed Hammond has a sister helping her drudge through her belongings to decide what is worth saving.

At the same time, residents are trying to figure out how to balance their grief and their need to move forward.

Staats, a teacher in town, said she knows a school custodian and a friend are among the 10 who died in the tornado.

"It's hard. You want to be there for (the families), but you need to be here," she said, continuing her search for whatever her family could find.

THE NUMBERS

24: Hours after a direct hit on Greensburg, Kan., by an EF-5 tornado Friday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency arrived, according to FEMA Administrator David Paulison.

1: Survivor was found in the rubble Sunday afternoon, according to City Adminstrator Steve Hewitt.

2: Bodies were recovered Monday, bringing the death toll related to the Friday tornado to 10 in Greensburg, Hewitt said.

3: Cars got the Staats family around prior to the tornado. Now they have zero.

3: Salvation Army canteens are serving food and beverages to residents and workers, said Brian Carroll, incident commander. Two are stationary and one is roving.

5: FEMA travel trailers are waiting for a place to hook up before being offered to families, according to Mike Karl, FEMA coordinating officer in Greensburg. Another 20 mobile homes are headed to the area. Sixty mobile homes — 54 regular models and six Americans with Disabilities Act compliant units — are poised to leave Amarillo, Texas, when pad sites are available.

108: FEMA personnel were on site by noon Monday, Karl said.

150: Kansas National Guardsmen were in Greensburg Monday, according to Maj. Gen. Tod Bunting of the Kansas National Guard. The number is expected to jump to between 250 and 300 Tuesday.

8 a.m.: When residents were allowed to return to Greensburg Monday. They had to leave again by 8 p.m. according to a curfew.