GREENSBURG, Kan. - As any seasoned emergency worker who toiled in Greensburg immediately after the deadly storm last May could attest, few had seen anything quite like it.
And few had seen what came almost immediately in its wake - an incredible community resilience to survive and even thrive with a vision for the future.
During a time when most communities are still in shock, Greensburg leaders and residents were already considering what the future could be. FEMA's Long-Term Community Recovery (LTCR) team quietly went about its work of helping the community knit together its long-term vision - with a published, action-based plan.
But just what is FEMA's Long-Term Community Recovery?
"It is a way of holistically looking at your recovery process," said Steve Castaner of FEMA's regional office in Kansas City and a LTCR expert. "Unlike response activity (immediately after a disaster) which is really task-oriented, this highlights the process of recovery.
"It's about (community) people coming together … deciding where they want to go, and providing them with the human and capital infrastructure. It is difficult to think about one year, two years or 10 years into the future, when you don't have a place to sleep at night, but (Greensburg residents) did."
Mitzi Hesser, a nurse who served on the one of the "sector" committees created for the LTCR process, was more succinct.
"There is no way we could have pulled this all together - even at the state level - without FEMA those first days and weeks," she said. "The (long-term planning) expertise they brought was phenomenal.
"If you weren't on the inside (of the process), you just don't know everything they did."
FEMA's LTCR process is not a blueprint, but a pliable effort which emphasizes what processes and resources the community chooses and works within those structures. Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius suggested Terry Woodberry of Kansas Communities, LLC, a specialist on community rebuilding, to assist Greensburg.
FEMA's LTCR team worked closely with Woodberry's, integrating decades of experience from both teams into helping Greensburg's planning effort. The idea of "sector" committees in four major areas of planning (Business, Government, Education, Health and Human Services) was from Woodberry, Castaner said. Those sector committees continue to meet and - through a steering committee made up of representatives from each of the sector committees - implement the plans from last summer.
"FEMA changed its model to accommodate us and accommodate how (Woodberry) normally sets things up," said Carmen Stouth, Kiowa County's public information officer and a committee member. "They listened to the community.
"When you have 600 people at a meeting and you ask people to put (sticky notes) with comments on all the plans - you're listening. I can't say enough good things about (FEMA's LTCR team)."
Three months of meetings, including four open community meetings where any resident could provide input and feedback about the developing plans, led to the creation of the Greensburg/Kiowa County Long-Term Community Recovery Plan in mid-August.
In just 75 pages, the plan lays out not only Greensburg's vision for community projects and cost estimates - including a section dedicated to sustainable "green" development which the town has become famous for advocating - but also specific action steps needed to complete them. That baseline plan has now been expanded into even greater detail.
Greensburg Unified School District 422 school superintendent Darin Headrick - who also served on two of the committees - lauded FEMA's LTCR for "helping our recovery to go as quickly as it has.
"FEMA deserves credit for getting the conversations started and getting people together," he said. "But I also applaud them about their sensitivity … They went overboard in staying in the background."
Castaner said that sensitive approach is the only way for FEMA to do business.
"To do it any other way would be insulting to them," he said. "We're working toward a common vision - their common vision.
"We tell them, 'Recovery happens … but (LTCR) is (about) how well it happens and how far you want to take it.' "
In Greensburg, they're working to take it all the way.