Blown away

The Baltimore Sun

Nothing odd about tornadoes in Kansas.

The state lies right in the center of the flat Midwestern prairie known as Tornado Alley, where fast-moving funnels of air are so common that one became a literary device - used to lift Dorothy's house to Oz in L. Frank Baum's 1900 novel.

And yet the magnitude of devastation when a small town such as Greensburg, Kan., gets literally knocked flat commands attention. It's a reminder of the vast power of nature to take away as well as to give. And of the predictable dangers that threaten Americans every day for which the nation could be better prepared.

Amazingly, this tale does not involve massive loss of life. With about 20 minutes' notice through sirens and broadcast announcements, most residents were able to find protection in basements or bathtubs from a twister that cut a swath more than a mile wide and 22 miles long. As of last night, the death toll was only nine - though the search for victims continued.

But Greensburg residents who returned from evacuation centers yesterday to poke through the rubble of their belongings found essentially nothing. Not even the trees were left. In a town of 1,500, nearly everything that makes up the fiber of life - homes, schools, businesses, churches - was lost as nature reclaimed the prairie.

President Bush promised federal help in rebuilding Greensburg. But as damage on a much more massive scale from Hurricane Katrina demonstrated, rebuilding is difficult, replacement impossible.

Money is a huge problem, of course. Even if insurance claims and government grants come through faster in Kansas than they did on the Gulf Coast, no one who endures a horror such as this can ever be made whole.

Further, like many other communities in America, Greensburg can't rely on National Guard emergency equipment, such as tents, trucks and semi-trailers, because it's being used for the war in Iraq.

Much lip service has been given to "homeland security" since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Yet as Katrina illustrated all too painfully, the agencies charged with that responsibility were incompetent to deal with natural disasters.

Greensburg's recovery should provide a chance to find out if any lessons have been learned.

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