Remembering the Greensburg, Kansas, EF-5 Tornado

Ten years ago today on the evening of May 4, 2007, the small town of Greensburg, Kansas, was nearly destroyed by a 1.7 mile wide EF-5 tornado, with a maximum wind speed of 205mph. Damage surveys concluded that about 95% of the city was destroyed, with EF-5 damage observed through the heart of Greensburg. The tornado tracked for 28.8 miles, and was on the ground for 65 minutes according to damage surveys conducted by the National Weather Service field office in Dodge City, Kansas.

Image of the lightning illuminated EF-5 tornado as it approached Greensburg, Kansas, on May 4th, 2007. Image credit: Melanie Metz, The University of Nebraska-Lincoln

The Greensburg tornado was the first tornado to earn the classification of EF-5 following the adoption of the Enhanced Fujita Scale in early 2007.  It was also the first tornado of F-5 or EF-5 intensity in the United States in more than 8 years (since May 3rd, 1999).

That evening, the National Weather Service in Dodge City issued a Tornado Warning at 9:19pm CDT. There was a lead time of 39 minutes before the tornado impacted Greensburg. While the supercell was south of Greensburg, it began to move due north and headed directly for town. As the tornado approached Greensburg, rotational velocities within the supercell were in excess of 260mph. The National Weather Service issued a “Tornado Emergency”, indicating that there was an imminent danger to life and property for the residents of Greensburg. Here is the warning message that aired over the radio as the Tornado Emergency was issued.

Doppler radar velocity scan as the supercell approached Greensburg, Kansas. Image credit: National Weather Service Dodge City, Kansas

Meteorologist Mike Umscheid of the NWS forecast office in Dodge City was working the warning desk the night of May 4th, 2007. He gives his first hand account of issuing the Tornado Emergency as it approached Greensburg, and how the evening panned out forecast wise across south-central Kansas. This was also the first Tornado Emergency to be issued since the Bridgecreek/New Castle, Oklahoma, F-5 tornado on May 3rd, 1999.

The warning information issued by the National Weather Service in Dodge City, Kansas, as the tornado approached Greensburg. Image credit: National Weather Service Dodge City/Iowa State Mesonet archive

Catastrophic damage occurred as the tornado impacted Greensburg, with brick framed houses that were securely bolted to the ground being completely swept away — which was ultimately the deciding factor that the tornado would be given a rating of an EF-5. Over 900 structures were damaged and/or completely destroyed by the tornado, as assessed during the damage surveys over the following days.

Satellite image of Greensburg, Kansas, days after impact from the EF-5 tornado. Image credit: Google Maps

Photo of the EF-5 damage in Greensburg, Kansas. Image credit: National Weather Service Dodge City, Kansas

Empty lots where houses used to stand before the tornado impacted Greensburg. The city continues to rebuild. Photo taken March 7th, 2015. Image credit: Harrison Sincavage

Soon after the event was over, all surviving residents of Greensburg were evacuated from the area. The Kansas National Guard, the Red Cross, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency aided in the recovery efforts. Several shelters were also established in nearby surviving structures.

Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius, and now former President of the United States George W. Bush declared Kiowa County, Kansas, a disaster area. The estimated cost of damages from the Greensburg tornado was an estimated $153 million USD. 

All told, there were 11 fatalities in Greensburg ranging from ages 48 to 79, and there were over 60 injuries. Some of the fatalities were in basements that were filled with a tremendous amount of debris, according to reports from the National Weather Service. 

Estimated wind speed map compiled by the NWS and other damage surveyors. The center of downtown Greensburg suffered EF-4 and EF-5 damage. This can also be seen at the memorial site in Greensburg, Kansas.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), EPA Region 7 was tasked by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to remove oil, hazardous materials, household hazardous waste, and other hazardous materials. The EPA initiated curbside pickup of household hazardous waste items on May 11, 2007, as well.

A vacant concrete slab of where a house once stood prior to the tornado. It remains vacant to this day. Image credit: Harrison Sincavage

Former Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius stated her wish that Greensburg become the “the greenest city in the state” and dedicated Kansas resources to make it happen. The Federal Emergency Management Agency began their long-term recovery process, and engaged the EPA and other federal agencies for their support and planning expertise.

Today, Greensburg, Kansas, is viewed as a model for eco-friendly building designs as all of the newly constructed buildings are Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum certified.

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