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Kansas Guard engineers pave way for Greensburg reconstruction

  • Published
  • By Sgt. Heather Wright
  • 105th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment Kansasa Army National Guard
GREENSBURG, KAN -- Fetid humidity and a morass of tree limbs, steel, glass and other debris that used to be the town of Greensburg greeted the Combat Engineers of the 772nd Mobile Augmentation Company of Pittsburgh, the 242nd Engineer Company of Coffeeville, engineers from the 184th Air Refueling Wing, and the 891st Engineer Battalion from Winfield. Despite the overwhelming scope of the catastrophe, they weren't deterred. They were on a mission.

On May 4, 2007 a F5E tornado hit Greensburg with 200-mile per hour winds and a 1.7 mile diameter funnel that leveled most of the town. After establishing resident safety and an operations center, the Kansas National Guard sent in soldiers and Airmen to help restore order and begin recovery efforts in Greensburg.

With a disaster of such extent, restoring road access and establishing control of utilities was essential. The engineers' first mission was to help Greensburg regain control by removing the piles of debris that cover roadways and utility access buried beneath the easements that border private property. The Kansas Department of Transportation assisted by transporting the debris to an established landfill. Once the debris was removed, utility companies came in to assess and repair the storm damage. This was the first step on the road to recovery.

Sgt. Brian Blandemer, a heavy equipment operator with the 242nd Engineer Company was stunned by the amount of damage, but determined to help with recovery: "The mission is going very well. We're getting things moving along. There's a lot of work to be done yet, but I think we're doing a good job."

Staff Sgt. Calvin Hicks, an equipment operator supervisor with the 891st, agreed with the Blandemer's assessment. He would have liked to see more heavy equipment in use, but until the soil dried out, they will have to rely on smaller tools: "The mission is going pretty good. We're working with what we've got. Everybody is working together and we're getting as much done as we can."

Many of the engineers have experience responding to natural disasters, but hadn't experienced anything approaching the level of devastation in Greensburg. Spec. Justin Noble Zimmerman, a heavy equipment operator with the 242nd Engineers, first experienced nature's force with the 1998 flood in Augusta, Kan. "This is a lot worse than anything I've ever seen. In Augusta, there were actually houses left. Here there's absolutely nothing."
Spec. Adam Joseph Beckman, a combat engineer with 772nd, remembered the small structure damage and tree limbs of the ice storm in Chanute, Kan., but wasn't prepared for Greensburg. "I was devastated," he said, "I couldn't believe that something like this would happen. You know, you don't realize what you're going to run into until you get here and once you get here, you feel terrible."

Once the shock wore off, determination to help set in. Spec. James Hensley, a combat engineer with the 772nd, expressed a common reaction to the disaster: "I was shocked. After that settled in, I felt really bad for the people and was really motivated to helped out any way I could."

The positive reaction from Greensburg residents helps to sure up that determination. "People are smiling and seem happy that we're here, says Spec. Beckman. Everybody waves at us as they go by and gives us water, oranges and stuff. I think we're doing a good job."

Sgt. Randall McMillan, a heavy equipment operator with 772nd, smiled as he recalled how happy a resident was to receive the "Welcome" sign that he found among the debris. Sgt. Blandemer put it the most succinctly: "We're happy to be here to help the people of Greensburg."