Notebook: Lessons Learned In Kansas

tornado-ravaged Greensburg, Kan., Hari Sreenivasan
CBS/Hari Sreenivasan

CBS News correspondent Hari Sreenivasan writes from Greensburg, Kansas on his coverage of the tornado that devastated an entire community.

After spending a few days in the remnants of Greensburg, Kan., I'm more curious about life in the Plain States. Seeing the trees stripped naked, the houses in shambles makes me wonder what the streets were like, what the homes were like, whether kids rode their bikes together in the summer and went fishing at the lake in some sort of idyllic fashion.

When I was first assigned the story on Saturday morning (as we began learning about the ferocity of the storm) and I started Googling the town, I hoped the damage wasn't severe for several reasons. The least important of those reasons was the drugstore on Main Street which had a soda jerk (a man who actually mixes you a soda) who had worked there for more than 55 years. While gathering little nuggets of information, I kept being drawn to this old fashioned icon of what life in small towns used to include and hoped that I'd get a chance to check it out.

As you know by now, Main Street was almost completely decimated and along with it, the Hunter Drugstore. I heard that the famous soda jerk was staying at a shelter in a neighboring town. Though I never got a chance to visit with him, I wish him and so many other people here the best in the long road they have ahead of them.

I tried to find pictures of what this town looked like, but realized that the historical society in town was also destroyed, and while there are pictures of what this town looked like a century ago, not many exist of what it looked like last week. Some of the things I liked about the town are how few chain stores there seemed to be to support a town of such size. That only happens when there are strong relationships between retailers and their clients, a good sign of the strength of a community.

The People

They were some of the warmest and most gracious I've met. In the face of such disaster, amidst their grief, they let my crew and I ask them questions and share their responses with the country. It would be very easy for any of the people I approached to deny me an answer and say 'go away,' but they didn't. I think the part I respected the most was something I've seen after other tragedies; it is the perspective that such tragedy spurs.

To a person, whether it be the state representative who lost his home, or the neighbor who he pulled from the rubble as she held off a wall from her infant son with an arm, to the great grandmother I met at a shelter to the colleagues of a police officer killed by a storm that night, they all knew the value of life. None of them stewed about the upheaval of their lives when the storm took their homes, their cars, their clothes, almost everything. The mother and daughter I re-entered Greensburg with, their first priority was the sentimental things: old pictures, mementos, things you really can't begin to itemize or appraise for an insurance adjuster.

According to one census estimate in the year 2000, 25 percent of the population then was above 65 years of age. Perhaps some of those people won't have the patience to come back and rebuild a town, but in their place might be those who move here for the economic opportunity that may come from rebuilding projects.

The Commute

Since almost every hotel in southwestern Kansas was booked, first with residents from Greensburg who had scattered after the storm, then with the scores of volunteers and relief workers who are here form all over the country, we traveled at least 75 miles each way every day.

We stayed at a place called Larned (which had Mexican food beyond our expectations), had reservations for a night's stay at a town named Liberal, which we didn't end up using, drove through towns named after Presidents Garfield and Ford, took a right at Spearville, went to the impound yard at the police station in Macksville, dined at RJ's in Haviland, and stopped to take a picture at Kingsley (at a spot which claims to be the midpoint of the country with 1,561 miles in each direction to San Francisco and New York). The highways are long, and straight and for the most part flat. Though early in the week, the light at dusk as we drove back to our different locations was amazingly eerie and textured, something I won't forget.

The Story Arc

There is a certain life cycle to these stories — almost to every story of tragedy and rebuilding I suppose. On Sunday morning, the news crews were all still trying to get their bearings, most of us in awe of the totality of what we were witnessing. We were the

on the evening news that night — the pictures beamed into millions of living rooms made it the clear lead for and .

Morning television was here in force by Monday and Tuesday: the super-weather casters and the national morning anchors were here working side by side with local affiliate reporters for most of whom, some coverage from here will likely lead their future resume tapes and help them get a job in a larger media market.

Almost every network went full speed ahead with this piece, and had sidebars or bounce pieces on Monday night; but on Tuesday, as news of potentially devastating floods surfaced, and forest fires raged in multiple parts of the country,

began slowly to slip down the priority list. While the residents' return was a sad illustration of the very personal and collective grief this community will live through, it was also something you couldn't and wouldn't do for . The President's arrival gave us just that "peg" to highlight an issue being discussed long before this storm: the National Guard's readiness and whether their deployments to Iraq are stretching them too thin at home.

It's common at these sorts of stories to run into old colleagues from previous employers. It's fun to see old friends, because at the end of the day, when you've tried to best each other by getting elements that your old friends don't, it's still a collegial atmosphere where you can go grab a meal with someone on another team because hopefully your friendship is bigger than the team you play for or the story of the day.

A Bit Of Learnin'

I'm not a farmer but I think I like them. I've almost lived my entire life in metropolitan or megalopolitan cities from Mumbai to Seattle to San Francisco and New York (with brief sojourns in Raleigh N.C. and Yakima, Wash.) and there are certain things about their lack of pretense and plainspokenness that I've always admired.

I learned the basics of how a grain elevator works by speaking to some. They didn't look down at me the way a New Yorker might when asking them about cocktails, or a San Franciscan might when asked what hybrid vehicle to buy, they just tell me. Farmers wear hats to keep the sun out of their eyes, not as a fashion statement or display any sense of irony. Their jeans are tough, not pretty. Their work boots actually do work, and the more I visit places like this, the more I understand why pickup truck commercials brag about how many tons they can haul. Because unlike the obscenely prissy SUVs that roam major cities with plush leather interiors and DVD players in the headrests, these trucks put the utility first as you constantly see them hauling something somewhere somehow.

People in small towns seem truly to be neighborly where I can safely say from my years of experience in big cities, you can easily find yourself compartmentalized in your people-box apartment. To see this contrast, you need look no further than one of these disasters where neighbors — especially in the most rural areas — come with trucks and trailers in tow, to put hundreds of hours of labor into an effort that doesn't pay them or directly benefit them.

It's that type of "pioneer spirit," as the President described, that I hope survives and thrives and helps get Greensburg to the environmentally Green city that the governor of Kansas envisions it can be.