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College of Human Ecology

K-State College of Human Ecology programs helping residents of Greensburg area in coping with aftermath of deadly tornado

Thursday, June 14, 2007

MANHATTAN -- Five weeks after a 1.7-mile-wide killer tornado hit Greensburg, two programs from the College of Human Ecology at Kansas State University remain on site, helping the rural community cope.

Briana Nelson Goff and Charlie Griffin, leaders of the Kansas All-Hazards Behavioral Health program and the Kansas Rural Family Helpline respectively, praised the community's strength, volunteers' generosity and their co-workers' tenacity.

But, they predict, the toughest tests lay ahead.

Especially after harvest and into winter, rural resilience will waver, said Griffin, a K-State research assistant professor of family studies and human services who has been working with agricultural crises since 1985.

As recovery stretches out, helpers and family members may face "compassion fatigue" or "secondary trauma," Goff said. Much of her research, as an associate professor of marriage and family therapy at K-State, centers on trauma.

Wearing bright green vests, the Kansas All-Hazards Behavioral Health team was on duty two days after the tornado destroyed 95 percent of the southwestern Kansas town. Team members came from around the state, each a professional specially trained in the behavioral health needs of disaster survivors.

"Therapeutic presence," Goff called what they did.

They drove all-terrain vehicles through debris that used to be a town, handing out water, food and supplies. They worked out of tents and makeshift shelters, easing chaos and helping survivors reconnect with each other and with possessions the tornado's 205-mile-an-hour winds had flung around the countryside.

Goff recalled the stacks of photo albums in the trailer that served as City Hall and the community's lost and found department. "There were picture albums everywhere," she said.

Goff estimated the team provided free outreach and crisis counseling to more than 13,000 tornado survivors the first two weeks.

The Greensburg area is the first response for the newly formed Kansas All-Hazards Behavioral Health Program. In 2005, Goff and Griffin were charged to develop a state plan for disaster behavior health in Kansas. The plan is implemented in the event of a presidentially-declared disaster or other public health emergency. The program is funded by a contract between K-State and the Kansas departments of Health and Environment and Social and Rehabilitation Services' Mental Health.

When the rare F5 tornado, the strongest designation, hit Greensburg May 4, the Kansas Rural Family Helpline already was in place.

"We have been active in southwestern Kansas since the Dec. 31 blizzard," said Griffin, referring to the storm that killed livestock and left farms and ranches without power for up to three weeks.

The tornado destroyed 961 homes in Greensburg. But lesser known, according to Griffin, is the damage to agricultural operations and rural homes in Kiowa, Pratt, Edwards and Stafford counties.

"This tornado has had a dramatic impact on the financial stability of many farms," he said.

The land was littered with piles of roofing, splintered wood and parts of tractors. Volunteers walked shoulder-to-shoulder, clearing fields so farmers could get back to farming.

"One woman called and told me, 'I don't even know what questions to ask,'" Griffin said.

Despite the sea of Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers, the exhaustive work of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other organizations, Griffin was most impressed with the "good-ole-boy network."

"Farm people are doing what they always do," Griffin said. "They are helping each other."

A small town equipment repair shop became a staging area. Farmers met there, then drove their equipment from farm to farm to do what needed to be done, then began reaching out to the state and federal programs to help fill in the gaps.

Griffin said a Kansas Rural Family Helpline crisis counselor met with them that first week. "What do you need?" she asked. "Ice," they said. They got ice. That quickly let them know "somebody was paying attention to their needs," Griffin said, summarizing the counselor's role.

The tornado ripped out miles of fencing. Cattle were killed and scattered all over the country. New fencing has been donated and skilled volunteers will help install it, but Griffin predicts the cattle will never all be sorted.

"The first couple of weeks, residents were busy and focused," he said. "Now they are exhausted, just fully grasping what has happened to their lives. They are taking time to sit down and tell us their stories, assessing their losses, sorting out their future."

But, added Goff, some will face post-traumatic stress, perhaps for the rest of their lives. They don't have to face it alone, she said.

"We're in it for the long haul," Goff said of the two K-State programs.

"The quality and volume of helping is phenomenal and heartwarming in the face of tragic loss," Griffin said.

The toll free Kansas Rural Family Helpline number is 1-866-327-6578; the Web site is: http://www.humec.k-state.edu/fshs/pfws/krfhprogram.html

The Kansas All-Hazards Behavioral Health program is available at 1-785-532-1490 or online at: http://www.k-state.edu/kahbh

Sources: Briana Nelson Goff and Charlie Griffin
News release prepared by: Jane Marshall

This article was posted on Thursday, June 14, 2007, and is filed under College News, Family Studies & Human Services.