5 min read

Outreach in Greensburg, Kansas

Todd J. Barber, Cassini lead propulsion engineer

In a bit of a twist, I've decided to devote this column to a recent outreach activity in my home state of Kansas. I first encountered the thriving community of Greensburg, Kansas during a road trip in November of 2005. Greensburg was a lovely town about 177 kilometers (110 miles) west of my hometown of Wichita, and ordinarily it wouldn't have even warranted a stop. However, when I found out that the town boasted the world's largest hand-dug well and an 500 kilogram (1100-pound) pallasite meteorite, I knew I had to take a few minutes and see the town. I didn't think about Greensburg again until I saw it on the news the weekend of May 5, 2007. Tragically, an enormous F5 tornado plowed into this county seat of 1450 people on Friday night, May 4th, destroying more than 95 percent of the buildings in town and killing twelve people. The response from local, state, and federal agencies was swift -- this was one of the largest natural disasters in the U.S. since Katrina nearly two years earlier. I think I was most touched to hear that a young boy from my hometown of Wichita donated 100 percent of his toys to the children of Greensburg when he heard on the news that they had lost everything. It still chokes me up to think about it.

Over the summer, many Greensburg residents struggled with the decision to rebuild and come back to their decimated community. I wondered what I could do for these brave residents of my home state, other than typical actions like donating to the Red Cross. In August, though, I saw a national news item that piqued my interest. After thinking about dispersing the kindergarten through 12th grade students to nearby towns or even other counties (so as not to overwhelm their school districts), the townspeople decided to bring in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailers for the students and begin the slow process of rebuilding. A temporary FEMA "trailer town" was built just south of town on Main Street, and trailers were placed at the location of the old school. At this point, I knew how I would like to help out this community in a very small way -- I decided to offer the school principals a day of NASA and JPL outreach for every student K-12. I've been in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory Speakers Bureau for twelve years, averaging one talk per month, but I knew this one might end up being the most memorable. Fortuitously, the first permanent school structure, the school gymnasium, was completed just a week before my arrival. I had the honor and privilege of "breaking in" this building on Nov.20, 2007 for 206 students K-12, talking mostly about the Cassini mission to Saturn and the twin Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity.

After a most unpleasant wake-up time of 5 am CST (3 am PST, ugh!), I popped in my rental car and drove the 110 miles west on US 54 to Greensburg. Entering town, there were a few buildings on the eastern outskirts that seemed unaffected, so I wondered if the devastation was really as bad as I had heard. In short order, the undeniable and utter destruction was evident in all four directions. Block after block, the only evidence of plant or animal life were tree trunks stripped of all their branches.

I began with my first group of about 70 students in grades 5-8. They were so sweet, bright-eyed, and inquisitive. I had to interrupt the presentation many times for wonderful questions about the cosmos, fate of the sun, etc. They seemed especially interested in Cassini and the Mars rovers. After the briefest of breaks, I spoke to around 55 students K-4. I don't usually speak to this age group, so that was a new challenge, but I think they were with me the entire way, longer than an hour. They were the sweetest young children, so full of questions and interest. For each student group, I started by telling them I was there essentially to say "thank you" for making me feel so proud to be a fellow Kansan. I also told them that we at NASA and JPL feel like pioneers and explorers, but their pioneering spirit that brought them back to Greensburg, rebuilding the town while living and going to school in FEMA trailers, was truly an inspiring example for the nation.

Following the second talk, there was one final opportunity this last school day before a five-day Thanksgiving weekend break. The 80 students in grades 9-12 held a Thanksgiving potluck for each other, the teachers, and principals in the gym. I think the seniors did most of the cooking, and I was able to break bread with these amazing students and share in their comradery and sense of community. Given what the town endured six months ago, I found this high school very different than most. Everyone seemed to be looking out for everyone else. My speech for grades 9-12 was over far too quickly, but as I headed east to Wichita for Thanksgiving, I realized how truly special this experience was.