GREENSBURG, Kan. – President Bush delivered on Sunday the commencement address for a graduating class of 18 students whose high school was leveled by a tornado last year that wiped out most of their town.
Standing in a makeshift auditorium where brick school buildings once stood, Bush told the Greensburg High School seniors that their graduation represents a triumph for the community.
“We celebrate the resurgence of a town that stood tall when its buildings and homes were laid low,” he said. “When the Class of 2008 walks across this stage today, you will send a powerful message to our entire nation: Greensburg, Kansas, is back and its best days are ahead.”
A year ago, a 205-mph tornado ripped through this southern Kansas town of 1,300. It carved a wide path of devastation through the center of town, killing 11 and leaving only the courthouse and a few buildings standing.
Winds tore off the top floor of the three-story high school, “and then everything else pretty much imploded upon itself,” said Principal Randy Fulton.
Classes resumed in August in a cluster of beige FEMA trailers. Home basketball and football games were held at neighboring schools.
“The kids are doing really well with it,” Fulton said. “They haven’t whined or whimpered. Like the rest of the community, we understand where we are and adapt and move on.”
More than $62 million of federal aid has been devoted to cleanup and reconstruction efforts in the region affected by the storm. In Greensburg, town leaders estimate that as much as half of the town’s destroyed homes have been rebuilt or rehabilitated, though scores of people still live in FEMA trailers.
Shortly after the storm, Greensburg officials decided to rebuild their community as a “green” town, aiming for high pollution-prevention and energy-efficiency standards and hoping to attract environment-oriented businesses.
The decision to “go green” was largely economic in the face of rising utility costs, Mayor John Janssen said. But it was also an attempt to create out of the ashes something good. Greensburg has been in decline since the 1970s, as the natural gas companies that had been a major employer closed or downsized, he said.
“We have a town that’s completely gone,” he said. “If we were going to build a new town, why not do it right?”