9 dead in weekend storm

Workers search for tornado victims in devastated Kansas town

May 07, 2007|By Miguel Bustillo | Miguel Bustillo,Los ANgeles Times

GREENSBURG, Kan. -- Anxiety mounted here yesterday as rescue teams continued combing through the ruins of this country town in a long-shot search for survivors, two days after a violent tornado took nine lives and leveled nearly everything.

As more than 40 searchers scanned the heaps of bricks and wooden beams for signs of life, National Guard troops and state law enforcement officers barred families from returning to their former homes, frustrating many survivors eager to reclaim old scrapbooks and other priceless mementos.

"We realize they're trying to find people who are missing. But it would be nice to go in there and get some things before the rain ruins everything," said Sarah Coates, 24, as she left a nearby emergency shelter with her grandmother. "My aunt would really like to get her wedding ring."

Officials said four soldiers from nearby Fort Riley Army base were arrested and accused of looting, further upsetting residents and business owners eager to reclaim whatever they could. The soldiers were being held at the Pratt County Jail after they allegedly were caught stealing cigarettes and beer from a crumpled storefront Saturday evening.

"They had no authority to be there," Sgt. Major Steve Rodina of the Kansas Army National Guard said of the soldiers, who may have attempted to impersonate the National Guard.

State and federal officials said they had no idea how many of Greensburg's estimated 1,400 residents remained missing, because families had scattered, making it difficult to know who was really unaccounted for.

"We never want to give up on someone," said R.L. Knoefel, a spokesman for the Kansas Highway Patrol. "It would have been nice if you could have seen this beautiful little town as it once was," Knoefel added. "Now it's all gone."

Small as it was, Greensburg, which lies about two hours west of Wichita in southwest Kansas, was considered the economic hub of its region. It was renowned as the home of the world's largest hand-dug well and for having a 1,000-pound meteorite on display in the center of town. After the twister, the well was destroyed and the meteorite is nowhere to be found.

The National Weather Service said yesterday that the tornado that struck Greensburg on Friday night had winds of more than 200 mph and was 1.4 miles wide as it went through the town. The Weather Service classified it as an F-5 strength tornado, the highest level possible. The last U.S. twister of that magnitude killed 36 people in Oklahoma in 1999.

President Bush declared the region a federal disaster area.

Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius was initially unable to fly into Greensburg because of continuing hailstorms and tornado warnings. But she arrived late yesterday afternoon and told survivors at a basketball gym turned shelter in nearby Haviland High School, "I am incredibly sorry for your losses. I know this is a community in mourning." She promised residents that they would be allowed to return to their homes today.

Miguel Bustillo writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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