For One Class of '08, A Presidential Visit

A year after a tornado devastated Greensburg, Kan., the town is slowly rebuilding. Greensburg officials began a "go green" campaign in order to attract environment-oriented businesses. "Its best days are ahead," President Bush told the 18 graduating seniors from the town high school.
A year after a tornado devastated Greensburg, Kan., the town is slowly rebuilding. Greensburg officials began a "go green" campaign in order to attract environment-oriented businesses. "Its best days are ahead," President Bush told the 18 graduating seniors from the town high school. (By Charlie Riedel -- Associated Press)

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By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 5, 2008

GREENSBURG, Kan., May 4 -- President Bush delivered on Sunday the commencement address for a graduating class of 18 students whose high school was leveled by a tornado last year that wiped out most of their town.

Standing in a makeshift auditorium where brick school buildings once stood, Bush told the Greensburg High School seniors that their graduation represents a triumph for the community.

"We celebrate the resurgence of a town that stood tall when its buildings and homes were laid low," he said. "When the Class of 2008 walks across this stage today, you will send a powerful message to our entire nation: Greensburg, Kansas, is back and its best days are ahead."

A year ago, a 205-mph tornado ripped through this southern Kansas town of 1,300. It carved a wide path of devastation through the center of town, killing nine and leaving only the courthouse and a few buildings standing.

The winds tore off the top floor of the three-story high school building, "and then everything else pretty much imploded upon itself," said Principal Randy Fulton.

Classes resumed in August in a cluster of beige FEMA trailers. Home basketball and football games were held at neighboring schools. Officials are planning to build a $30 million replacement school.

"The kids are doing really well with it," Fulton said. "They haven't whined or whimpered. Like the rest of the community, we understand where we are, and adapt and move on."

More than $62 million of federal aid has been devoted to cleanup and reconstruction efforts in the region affected by the storm. In Greensburg, town leaders estimate that as much as half of the town's destroyed homes have been rebuilt or rehabilitated, though scores of people still live in FEMA trailers.

Shortly after the storm, Greensburg officials decided to rebuild their community as a "green" town, aiming for high pollution and energy-efficiency standards and hoping to attract environment-oriented businesses.

The decision to "go green" was largely an economic decision in the face of rising utility costs, Mayor John Janssen said. But it was also an attempt to create out of the ashes something good -- better, even, than what existed before. Greensburg has been in decline since the 1970s, as the natural gas companies that had been a major employer closed or downsized, he said.

"We have a town that's completely gone," he said. "If we were going to build a new town, why not do it right?"

Bush was greeted warmly on Sunday. Hundreds lined what remained of Main Street, waving flags as his motorcade approached the high school, and his comments were met with a standing ovation.

The graduation took place in what has been dubbed the "cafe-gym-atorium," Fulton said -- a temporary, all-purpose building constructed in November. Sporting events, community gatherings and even funerals have been held there, and he noted: "It's the only place in town right now where you can get a lot of people inside."

Parents and well-wishers dabbed at teary eyes as student speakers described the difficulty of completing their studies while helping their families cope with disaster. Jarrett Schaef, the senior class president, urged fellow graduates to hold on to the sense of community that arose after the twister.

"Although people definitely won't consider it a blessing when the tornado hit, there are many blessings that will come out of it," he said.

After his remarks, Bush handed out diplomas and posed for photographs with each graduate. A woman who fiddled just a little too long before snapping a picture got a good-natured "Hurry up, Mom!" from the president.

Bush first visited the town five days after the tornado, and decided to speak at the high school graduation after he met a town official at the State of the Union address in January. He asked that it be rescheduled from next weekend, when his daughter Jenna is to be married at the family ranch in Crawford, Tex. Sunday was the first time he had spoken at a high school graduation.

His visit came after tornadoes ripped through the Midwest late Thursday and early Friday, damaging hundreds of buildings and killing seven people.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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