MDS on scene of Kansas tornadoes within hours

Paul Unruh (left), MDS community worker, Kevin King MDS executive director (center) and Rev. Jeff Blackburn, pastor of Greensburg Mennonite Church tour the devastation.

May 6, 2007—An outbreak of at least six tornadoes tore through southwestern Kansas Friday night, wiping out over 90% of homes in the town of Greensburg alone. Seven people have been reported killed.
Within hours four teams from Mennonite Disaster Service’s Kansas Unit were in the area doing cleanup, and an additional three or four MDS early response teams were expected by Sunday morning.

Rev. Jeff Blackburn, pastor of Greensburg Mennonite Church, said “I’m trained and do trauma work . . . ” but was unable to finish his sentence. The church Blackburn has pastored for 11 years is completely gone, and the building where Blackburn, his wife Lori, and their 17-year-old daughter Cassie were in was completely blown away, as well.

Kevin King, executive director of MDS, was on the scene Saturday, just hours after the storms hit. “It’s like something I haven’t seen before. It looks like a giant rake came through and raked the town away.” King was emotional as he described that in the town there didn’t seem to be any walls remaining. “Virtually not even a cluster of bricks left.”

“As we milled about Haviland we kept hearing some of the same conversations over and over from the shell-shocked residents, ‘Do you have a house?’ ‘No, me neither,” and that would be followed with embraces. Children came up to each other and we heard them say, ‘My house is gone, is yours?’”

Greensburg has a population of over 1,500. Pastor Blackburn said that three-quarters of his 80 or so congregants live in the town of Greensburg, and so now at least three dozen of them are without homes. He added, “I knew MDS would show up, but I didn’t think it would be this fast.”

Though their church building is gone, Blackburn said they have put up notices that they still planned on having a service Sunday morning, even if it would be in the high school parking lot in Haviland.

Many of the people who were evacuated from Greensburg have been given shelter and food in nearby Haviland, where the Red Cross has set up operations in the local high school gymnasium. A local German Baptist Mennonite congregation were also working in Sawyer, Kansas as MDS volunteers.

Aside from initial cleanup, MDS volunteers will work on roof damage of those houses that are still standing, as well as helping congregants of the Greensburg church sort through their personal effects.

MDS was started in 1950 as a Mennonite Sunday school’s response to tornadoes that had hit Kansas. MDS responds not only to damage caused by tornadoes, but also hurricanes and other natural disasters, as well as human-made disasters that affect the U.S. and Canada.

Even as volunteers came in to help, and search and rescue efforts continued, “there are additional tornado warnings for the area tonight,” added King on Saturday night. “This is ominous for the town.”

The Brethren in Christ Church of North America supports MDS through the World Hunger Fund. For further updates on MDS’ work in Kansas, visit their website.