READING, Kan. | Shade trees once lined the streets, but now you can see from one end of town to the other.
The trees are gone, along with more than half of the 110 houses.
For a tiny town determined to come back from a devastating May 21 tornado, Reading is counting on financial help, hard work — and marketing.
Gumption alone may not be enough to rebuild the town of 250, located 18 miles outside Emporia. They’ll also need a theme, some residents say.
“We have to find something to market this town,” resident Tammy Patterson says.
That’s something Patterson and two other residents learned from a trip to Greensburg, a Kansas town nearly leveled by a 2007 tornado. Greensburg’s resurgence has gained some national attention thanks to its new identity as possibly the greenest town in the country.
Leaders in Reading don’t intend to completely reinvent their town in the same way, but they do have a Greensburg-inspired vision for the future.
“We’ve certainly got Americana going for us,” Patterson said at a community meeting this week.
An all-American theme is not far from what Reading has always aspired to — residents’ birthdays are printed in the annual community calendar.
Patterson and Brandee Ball, who also made the Greensburg trip, encouraged people at this week’s meeting to be visionary and to speak up about what they saw for the future of Reading.
Voices ringing out in the crowded, hot church described an idealized American small town: parks, community centers, trees, a grocery store.
“We want to make it a place where people say, ‘Oh, my gosh, we’ve lost that in America,’ ” Patterson said.
Mary Sweet, one of the Greensburg community members who met with the Reading delegation, said they’re on the right track.
“You have to tell your story so that people do want to help you,” said Sweet, administrator at Kiowa County Memorial Hospital. “There are a lot of disasters and you need to make sure you don’t get lost in the shuffle.”
Patterson was convinced.
“We have to give our youth something to come back to,” she said. “We have to make this somewhere that people want to come.”
Still, rebuilding Reading can be a hard sell for some who lost almost everything in the tornado. Some residents pleaded with the crowd this week to think about staying.
“We stayed here and raised our kids here and we want to see our grandkids raised here,” said Reta Jackson, who owned the town’s sole restaurant, which was destroyed. “Help us build that back.”
There are still many unanswered questions about rebuilding — finances included.
Exactly how much aid Reading could receive remains unknown. The county sustained about $1.13 million in damage to commercial and public buildings, exceeding the requirement for federal assistance. But the state’s total costs are considered, too, and those are still unknown, said Sharon Watson, spokeswoman for the Kansas Adjutant General’s Department.
Both county and state limits must be met to qualify for federal assistance.
For now, repairs to standing structures and the construction of new structures is next on the agenda. Building demolitions and debris removal were wrapping up this week.
As the town begins to switch gears, those leading this week’s meeting encouraged people to be positive: The meeting started with instructions for people who “wanted to gripe and complain” to leave.
Residents should focus on the future, they say.
“We have no control over if people are going to move away, but we have control over getting people to move here,” Patterson said. “We have to make it look good.”
And making it look good comes back to marketing. Meeting leaders encouraged residents and former residents to remain positive in the media and try to keep people’s attention on the town.
“We were a little outshined by Joplin and that was hard because we’re a small town,” Patterson said. Joplin was ravaged by one of the deadliest tornadoes in U.S. history the night after the storm in Reading.
But Barbara Schlobohm, the city’s public information officer, said the city hasn’t been forgotten.
Schlobohm has been spending many of her days in the school cafeteria, surrounded by donations of clothes, food and household goods. She’s been moved to tears by the overwhelming numbers of calls from people wanting to volunteer time and services.
“So many people have stopped and said they don’t want to forget about little Reading,” she said.