Like nearly everyone else in Greensburg on May 4, 2007, Matt Deighton was watching television weather reports. His last contact with the outside world that night was KSN Meteorologist Dave Freeman.
“And then it all turned black,” Deighton said Thursday while sharing his experience with the devastating Greensburg tornado at the Garden City Farm and Ranch Show.
Deighton served as a volunteer coordinator for three years following the disaster, in which an EF5 tornado wiped out 95 percent of the town.
“We all know where Greensburg is, a population of 1,452 on the night of the storm. The next day the population was seven. The storm was a mile and three quarters wide at the base,” Deighton said, pointing at radar images of the storm system from that evening and reflecting on how so many people lost their homes that night. “One reason we see so much radar reflection here toward the big tornado going to the northeast is the mere fact that probably half of Greensburg was around 30,000 to 50,000 feet in the air reflecting the radar.”
Deighton showed a photo of a table full of memorabilia from Greensburg’s High School, set up in front of the school’s remains shortly after the storm.
“The Greensburg High School had three stories. The third story they never found,” Deighton said.
But scattered around the devastation, like so much debris, Deighton said, were many, many bright spots. One involved former President George W. Bush and an elderly Greensburg resident he called “Schmitty.” After the storm, Schmitty’s grown children asked him to look through a box of junk for some glasses to use in preparation for Bush’s visit to the area.
“Pretty soon, a group of people were walking around and old Schmitty was sitting on the curb and he’s mad because he’s got to search through this box of junk. And some man walks up to him and pats him on the shoulder and says, ‘Old timer, how are you doing?’ And Schmitty said, ‘As soon as that S.O.B. goes back to Washington, I’ll be a lot better,’” Deighton said. “And the man he was speaking to happened to be the President of the United States.”
Despite Schmitty’s not-so-nice welcome, Deighton said the two men ended up sitting on the curb together, laughing and joking for about 10 minutes.
“That did a lot for so many people,” he said. “The president, when they come to town in an emergency like this, you’re not Republican, you’re not Democrat, you’re not an independent. You’re an American.”
Deighton also witnessed some head-shaking behavior while serving as the volunteer coordinator. One day, he received a call from a woman from a Pentecostal church in Ohio who offered to bring out plumbers and electricians. But she had a few conditions that needed to be met first.
“She asked, ‘Will there be any Lutherans staying at the volunteer village while we’re there?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ and then, ‘click,’ I got hung up on,” Deighton said.
Overall, Deighton was overwhelmed by all of the generosity and support received from organizations across the United States.
“We received as a gift, from survivors of 9/11 and widows and orphans of 9/11 and the Fire Department of New York, a 15,000-square-foot show barn for our fairgrounds,” Deighton said, while showing a photo of a large, red barn. “Why did we get that? It’s called paying it forward.”
Deighton wrote a children’s book about the experience, titled “Molly and the Tornado,” whose main character is a Dalmatian dog.
Deighton speaks at events across the country, and has participated at 9/11 events in New York. Molly accompanied him on many of his trips, becoming an ambassador of hope.
Deighton said Greensburg’s former claim to fame, the world’s largest hand dug well, was practically the only thing left intact after the storm, which, remarkably, claimed only 13 lives.
“I got to go on a little trip down to the bottom of the well within a few months after the tornado. You can’t believe the debris that we found in the bottom of the big well. It was unbelievable. Just oddball stuff,” Deighton said, though he didn’t elaborate on the types of things found.
But like the well, Deighton survived.
“I am now what we call a tornado thriver,” he said.