As any meteorologist or stormchaser can tell you, there's not much a public works department can do to brace itself against an F-5 tornado, save for prepare to clean up after the storm passes.
Such a storm hit Greensburg, Kan., on May 4, so hard that there's now little left of the town. A total of 14 people were killed, and not much remained standing, save for a few crumbling walls where houses and churches used to be, and a single grain elevator.
What the town was left with after the funnel cloud departed was help from public works departments across the state, who lent people, equipment, and engineering expertise to help the town get back on its feet.
On May 18, the public works department of Wichita—a 360,000-resident town 110 miles west of Greensburg—deployed its first “care package” of 66 volunteers, 26 dump trucks, four loaders, two tele-handlers, one excavator, six skidsteers, and numerous power and hand tools, to assist with the removal and disposal of branches, garbage, and other debris.
“I am proud of these employees for working long, hard hours to help our friends,” says Chris Carrier, Wichita's public works director.
Wichita Transit buses brought the crew back home for Memorial Day, then returned with a fresh load of workers on May 29. All of the laborers, engineers, and other hands-on helpers are unpaid volunteers.
“Many individuals within the organization had family and friends in Greensburg who were directly and significantly impacted,” says Aaron Henning, assistant maintenance engineer in Wichita.
Wichita has not been alone in providing assistance.
Topeka sent employees and equipment to Greensburg, 250 miles away. Murphy Tractor, a local John Deere equipment dealer, contributed a grapple-equipped loader, and a waste-handling dozer. The county in which Greensburg lies, Kiowa, opened a new landfill to handle the debris; by Memorial Day, volunteers had driven and dumped more than 12,000 truckloads of material there. And the League of Kansas Municipalities set up the Greensburg Fund to collect contributions for rebuilding the town's infrastructure.
“Lending” personnel to the Greensburg recovery effort caused a minor strain on the Wichita Public Works Department—especially with the threat of severe storms throughout May requiring the city to monitor its waterways and levees around the clock. However, sustained response to storms and other emergencies, within city boundaries and in neighboring agencies, is something a smart infrastructure manager should always be prepared for.
“We've learned from experience that careful organization and sustained flexibility are paramount to success,” says Henning.
To learn more about or contribute to the LKW Greenburg Fund, visit www.lkm.org or call 785-354-9565.