Gift, grant help Greensburg, Kan., replace trees lost to tornado

Joan Hayse misses the way the giant old maples, elms and cottonwood trees would arch across the streets of town, forming a canopy of shade in the heat of the Kansas summer.

On a recent morning, just three weeks before the fifth anniversary of the EF-5 tornado that destroyed life as she knew it, Hayse was volunteering to plant more trees.

Sixty-one trees were purchased through a $20,000 gift to Greensburg from the U.S. Chamber Business Civic Leadership Center and Siemens USA for winning a Siemens Sustainable Community Award.

Along with Hayse and other members of the town’s tree board, community leaders and a few visitors planted 25 spring snow and prairie fire crabapple trees around the nearly completed Big Well Museum.

Weighing between 250 and 500 pounds, the trees took three or more people to maneuver into the ground. Volunteers and employees with Landscape Inc. of Wichita helped gently roll the trees into the holes.

“This is just one more sign of progress,” said Stacy Barnes, museum director and director of tourism for Greensburg. “The buildings have come back in five years, but the trees will take time, 20 years or more.”

Excitement was in the air, along with the smell of fresh earth. Since the tornado, there hasn’t been much to block the Kansas wind in this town. While the new crabapples appeared sturdy, they were being supported with stakes and wire gently wrapped around the trunks.

“If you get winds of 40 mph they won’t be damaged,” said Jennifer Winn, owner of Landscape Inc., who was offering a crash course in tree planting to the volunteers.

“That’s just a breeze here,” joked Mayor Bob Dixson.

The tree planting effort was part of the ongoing regreening work of this community. With each tree replanted, Carmen Stauth felt hope for the environment of her community.

“They are energy savers with the shade they provide in the summer, and they are a wind break to slow the wind,” said Stauth, a Kiowa County extension agent in agriculture, who was helping wrestle the base of a tree into its hole. After clearing away the debris and the dead trees from the town after the 2007 tornado, she said residents have lived without the comfort of a windbreak.

“It was like being in an open field.”

There is also the aesthetic value of trees, and the social side, Stauth noted.

“Several residents have talked about how much they missed the songbirds,” she said.

However, by the next spring following the tornado when some leaves returned to the storm-damaged trees and new trees were planted, the birds knew to return.

Stauth has been working with K-State Urban/Community Forestry coordinator Tim McDonnell, who said he never saw such damage to trees as the aftermath of the Greensburg tornado. While he wanted to get to work clearing out and replanting, he knew the reconstruction of the community needed to come first, the trees second.

While working with Stauth, they wrote a comprehensive grant to the U.S. Forestry Service for $300,000. With the grant they have not only planted 2,500 to 3,000 trees back in the community, they have also purchased tree supplies and have hired an intern to help maintain the trees. Trees on the right of ways were paid for by FEMA.

“This is the cutting edge,” said Leland Milstein, program director with Alliance for Community Trees, who came from Washington, D.C., to help plant the trees around the Big Well and see the community he has heard so much about.

For Charles Hall, a survivor of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, a visit to Greensburg was an opportunity to see a community rebuild from disaster and do more than make lemonade from their lemons.

After a tour of the rebuilt community, he said he felt knitted to Greensburg after learning some of the cypress wood in Kiowa County High School was salvaged from Hurricane Katrina.

“They have made lemon meringue pie,” said Hall, representing Siemens Public Sector Group.

Greensburg was an example of sustainability at its best, and Hall appreciated how in rebuilding they were taking advantage of the sun and the wind.

As members of the tree board wrestled another tree into its hole, Hall looked over at the workers.

“This is the heart of resiliency in this community,” he said. “and that makes this community great.”