Special Graduation Guest in Storm Zone

By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG

Published: May 5, 2008, New York Times

GREENSBURG, Kan. — A year to the day after a deadly tornado nearly wiped this western Kansas prairie town off the map, Sunday’s high school graduation ceremony was conducted with a bit more pomp and circumstance than usual. The graduates, all 18 of them, had an out-of-town commencement speaker: President Bush.

“The tornado tore apart the beams and boards that held your houses together,” Mr. Bush told the graduates, their families and hundreds of residents gathered in a corrugated metal warehouse that serves as a temporary gymnasium. “But it could not break the bonds of family and faith that hold your town together.”

The ceremony was at once poignant and typical, as students and school administrators recounted the ordinariness of American high school life — the boys’ basketball team that made it to the state tournament for the first time in 30 years, the time the seniors played a prank on a teacher by locking her out of her room — against the backdrop of the fears and hard work of rebuilding that followed the storm.

“Although I had a responsibility to my family, you guys were what was important,” Jarrett Schaef, the salutatorian, said in a speech that recounted how he left home to search for classmates after the storm blew through. “I was terrified that something had happened to you guys.”

Memories of the tornado, which killed nine people in Greensburg and flattened 95 percent of the town, are still raw here. Almost everyone can tell stories of huddling in their basements, their ears popping from the pressure of the storm as the twister wreaked havoc overhead, and then emerging, astonished, to find that the town had literally disappeared in an instant.

Today, signs of that devastation remain, mixed with signs of rebirth.

A new water tower rises high above denuded elm trees. New houses are springing up. The brick bank building, the only one on Main Street to survive the storm, is still standing, boarded up and vacant, next to a hole in the ground where the movie theater used to be. The old red brick schoolhouse is gone, replaced by a collection of mobile trailers — a marvel in the eyes of people who once doubted that there would be school at all.

“We were all questioning what would happen to our town next,” said Ki Gamble, the school board president. “Would Greensburg survive, could Greensburg survive? Would everyone move away? Where would our children go to school? Would we even have a school?”

For Greensburg, the graduation was a day not only to look back, but also to look forward. Like many rural communities, Greensburg has been losing population since the 1970s. The storm worsened the exodus; there were 1,350 people in Greensburg last year, according to the mayor, John Janssen, and just 750 today.

But Greensburg is planning for a turnaround. Like its name, the city is going green; a new city ordinance requires all public buildings to meet the highest standards of energy efficiency. The mayor, who lost his home and is now living in a 36-foot-by-42-foot shed that doubles as his accounting office, said businesses were looking at a planned industrial park. Mr. Janssen has dreams of 2,500 residents in five years.

“There were people who said we need to build it back just like it was, and I said, ‘Fine, we’ll order plywood for the windows on Main Street at the same time,’ ” he said. “But when you have a blank palette, why not do it right? And right was green.”

For Mr. Bush, who flew in by helicopter from Wichita, about 100 miles east, the ceremony marked the first time he had delivered a commencement address to a high school. But it was his second visit to Greensburg.

Still stung by reminders of the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, the president came here shortly after the storm and promised federal money. So far, the White House says, Greensburg and its surrounding county, Kiowa, have received $41 million in federal aid.

Mr. Bush said Sunday’s ceremony sent “a powerful message to our nation: Greensburg, Kansas, is back, and its best days are ahead.”

Parents everywhere have known the twinge that comes with high school graduation, the moment when a child steps out into the wider world. But in Greensburg on Sunday, the letting go was just a little bit harder, said Dee Fulton, whose husband, Randy, is the high school principal and whose daughter, Kacey, was among the 18 graduates.

“It might be tougher this year, for parents to turn their kids loose,” Mrs. Fulton said, adding that the prairie winds had been kicking up again, bringing with them reminders of the storm. Still, she said, the tornado had an upside, forcing people to focus on what is important in life.

“We all had closets full of stuff that we wish we could have saved,” Mrs. Fulton said. “Like today, I would have liked to have our pictures out from kindergarten, but they’re all gone in the storm. I think people around here are not as materialistic as they were before. We’re a lot more appreciative of what we do have.”

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