Struggling to rebuild the Greensburg Library

The day after the tornado, rain made it impossible to rescue any of the library's books. Photo courtesy of Larry Schwarm

by Alicia Rudnicki, Library Mix

A public library is a large part of the “heart” of the community it serves. Similar to a heart attack, the loss of a library can cripple the body of its community.

That is what has happened to Greensburg, Kansas, a tiny city that is the county seat of the Kiowa County farming community west of Wichita in south central Kansas. It is also the center of the Kiowa County Library District, but has had no library of its own for more than two years now.

In late May 2007, a tornado devastated 95 percent of Greensburg’s buildings including the library. When rains came a few days later, there was no question of rescuing the tens of thousands of books lying in the ruins. They were scooped up by backhoes along with the rest of the rubble.

No room in the trailers
After its near obliteration, Greensburg made a brave and ambitious decision. Instead of becoming a ghost town, it would rebuild “green” as well as rebuilding stronger to withstand tornadoes.

Emergency trailers used for private housing and provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) were never available for library use, according to Kiowa County Head Librarian Debby Allison. She adds that there has been no money for a bookmobile since the library district must save all its funds to rebuild, furnish, and stock its new facility whenever that is built.

It appears that neither FEMA nor the county could provide the library with a trailer following the tornado. Although at least one Louisiana library was housed in a FEMA trailer during the recovery from Hurricane Katrina, this appears to be a rarity based on a search of online news sources.

Allison said that the county, city, and school district all rented their own trailers and that there was never any space in those limited structures for even a room in which to sort donated books. So, please, Allison added, do not send any book donations at this time. There is nowhere to store them.

Although contacted twice this summer, the county has yet to answer the question of why no space was ever allocated for the library since the tornado.

A limited “dollar pie”
The county trailers are now gone, because the county courthouse (one of the few buildings to remain standing after the storm) reopened early in August following 27 months of renovation. But there is no space for the library in that building either.

This summer, Allison said, she was “bitterly disappointed” when a private organization that had promised the library a room for sorting books reneged on its offer.

“The dollar pie” for reconstruction “is of limited size,” Allison said. She added that “the library was last in the county’s priority list. Those are not my words—the county commissioners said as much. But somebody has to be last!”

Allison is quick to note that it is hard for people outside of Greensburg to understand how difficult it has been overall to rebuild. “The city offices are still in a trailer. Their building may or may not be done sometime this year. The school will not be done this year either, and they have all their funding in place and began [work] right away after the tornado.”

Construction time and costs are increased, she said, by matters as simple as not having motels nearby for construction crews.

A “green” multi-use facility
In June, Matt Christensen of the Kiowa County Finance Office said that there is a shortfall of $2 million to build the Kiowa County Commons, a joint use facility that will someday house the library, a museum, a state extension office, and a media center. Plans also call for a number of eco-friendly features, including a rooftop garden.

The construction funds set aside for each of these entities were pooled to make the Commons project possible, Allison said, and added that it probably wouldn’t be feasible now to separate the funds.

Allison said that “the point of combining the four entities into one building was to attract funding from companies who would want their name attached to such a forward-thinking, cool concept. Of course, this was before the economy tanked.”

Greensburg has shrunk from a population of about 1,300 to about 800 residents since the tornado. A library is the sort of amenity that probably could help attract new residents.

Documenting an alien landscape
Kansas photographer Larry Schwarm documented Greensburg’s devastation  a day after the 2007 tornado. Some months later, this is what he wrote about the experience:

I spent my childhood on a farm outside of Greensburg, Kansas, where my parents still live. The town has been as familiar to me as the back of my hand. It has been a constant, always there, with changes so subtle that they were often difficult to notice. Then last spring, in just one day, it was gone, and where it had been was now a landscape of splintered wood and twisted metal. It took less than fifteen minutes for a massive tornado to reduce over a thousand homes to an enormous pile of rubble.

My first photographs, taken just hours after the tornado, are the most difficult images that I have ever made. They are my reaction to the incomprehensible loss of an entire community, a product of shock and disbelief of what fellow Kansans now call “the storm”. When I walked into town, my intention was simply to document the destruction. What I was confronted with was so emotionally overpowering that I had to use my camera as a shield, putting a layer between me and some of the rawness.

Relationships between man and nature, with its inherent cycles of destruction and renewal, have been an enduring theme in my photographs. As I worked through the horror and sadness, chaos distilled into clarity and I began to find some surviving beauty in a now-alien landscape.

How you can help
But for the meanwhile, without the sound of corporate angel wings alighting, the Kiowa County Library system must continue to encourage Greensburg residents to travel to two neighboring communities, each about 10 miles away, for library services. Furthermore, Allison said, neither of these libraries is open on the weekend, and one of them recently had its schedule decreased to three hours a day Monday through Friday.

Although it isn’t a good idea to donate books at this time, it is possible to provide other help by donating to the Kansas Library Association (KLA) Greensburg/Kiowa County Library Relief Fund. The KLA fund currently contains about $38,500. Allison stressed that this money can’t be used toward construction. Instead, it will likely help pay for library furnishings, something that the current complicated brew of federal, state, county, and city funding can’t cover.

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