We kept seeing ads for The Largest Hand-Dug Well in the World, so we decided to go see it. After all, how Steps down the well could you not? It was dug in 1888 as the town water supply for Greensburg, Kansas. The entire spiral staircase which descends to the bottom is 109 steps long. The well was intended not only as the town water supply; the Santa Fe Railroad needed the water for its steam engines and provided much of the incentive (and probably money) for the original construction.
What we didn't know was this: on May 4, 2007 a tornado struck the town and pretty much destroyed it. The tornado was force 5 on the enhanced Fujita scale and cut a mile-wide swath. Remarkably, only 12 of the 1000-plus residents died; older citizens who couldn't (or didn't) heed the warnings to go underground to the storm shelters. Some people left Greensburg forever. After the worst of the damage had been cleared away, the remaining townsfolk, about 750 strong, met and decided that they would take the opportunity to rebuild as a model of environmentally smart technology, thus giving the town's traditional name ("Cannonball" Green was a town pioneer and stagecoach operator) a new meaning. Remains of the library
With help from several federal agencies and additional support from environment activists, they are well on their way. A Green house featuring sustainable architecture and building materials, is located just across the street from the visitor center. A good sized wind farm supplies all the electricity for the town, which even sells some power back to "the grid."
We drove into town in the middle of Sunday afternoon. Immediately we were aware that this was a very different place. There were no tall buildings. There were many empty lots. Just about all of the houses and shops looked newly built. The motel was new, a two-story building which, we were told, has a full basement -- "it's a certified bomb shelter, too" (said with a grin).
On Monday morning we drove around town some more, marveling at the neat and tidy, almost movie-set, appearance; with the exception of a couple of stairstep fragments and a few concrete pads lying bare on the Some homes were rebuilt gound, we didn't find any traces from the storm -- except for a memorial to the people who lost their lives that night. We were later told that because Greensburg is located in "Tornado Alley" just about everybody has a survival plan. Relatives welcome relatives, friends shelter friends, buildings that are strong enough open as shelters. The sirens are tested and work loudly. And the people we met are, without exception, cheerful and optimistic.
The famous well is the center of the new town museum and visitor center which itself was finished only last year. This well is truly an impressive feat, especially when one realizes that it was only in use for a relatively short time; by the 1900s the town had outgrown its capacity, and later, when they tried to use it as a supplement to a newer system, health laws forbade having an open well. So here it is, a large hole with water at the bottom, to attract visitors.
We read the timeline of the town, which includes endearing photos of its early days, when everybody who had an auto gathered for a photo. Then we saw more photos and video of the powerful tornado. The most striking exhibit to us was the library's card catalog, all that was left from the library. Pads for FEMA trailers
We became conscious of a family also reading the story: grandmother, her son and daughter, daughter's grandson (who was captivated by the stairs up and down the well). Grandmother apologized for speaking German, which led to our telling them about our recent visit to Bavaria, and then she told us why they were there. The grandmother in America had recently discovered the identity of her son, who lives and works near Hamburg, Germany and who had made a visit to reconnect with his sister and mother. It was a happy and emotional conversation.
On our way out of town, we passed the former "FEMA Village" where temporary housing had been set up and subsequently removed. All that is left now are scraped rectangles where mobile homes had been set. They look almost like a field for a large game of horsehoes or lawn bowls. Maybe in time they will become a playground.