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Greensburg cooperative back in business after tornado

Agriculture.com Staff 05/23/2007 @ 11:25am

After the most powerful tornado to hit American soil in eight years drilled its deadly path across Greensburg, Kansas, the only business left standing was the concrete grain elevator belonging to the Southern Plains Cooperative.

The F5 tornado's 200-mile-per-hour winds damaged 95% of the farming community; the co-op grain elevator was one of few buildings left standing. For many of this community's 1,600 residents and surrounding farmers, the elevator was the only part of their town they could recognize. With winter wheat harvest season near, seeing the elevator intact was a sign of hope.

The co-op has been the lifeblood of this farming community and a Nationwide Agribusiness customer for more than 20 years, according to a company report. While the dollar value of the claim isn't near the industry's largest, from a farming and cooperative perspective, it's a major loss.

"This was about more than just handing our customer a check. Southern Plains' success is a vital component to the livelihood of area farmers and to this community's comeback," says Brett Harman, president of Nationwide Agribusiness. "Our efforts focused on getting them back in business immediately."

Mark Whalen, a commercial claims specialist at Nationwide Agribusiness, arrived at the site shortly after the storm. Though his job takes him to many disaster areas, he was amazed by the power of the F5 tornado.

"Complete devastation," says Whalen. "To look out and see no standing structures in an entire town is mind-boggling."

Kansas Farmers Service Association (KFSA) is Southern Plains' insurance provider. Charles Collins, Southern Plains' safety director, was among the first to arrive.

"The tornado hit at 9:40 p.m., and I was on the scene by 10:30," says Collins, Safety Director for Kansas Safety and Compliance, a safety management company managed by KFSA.

His first course of action was to make sure everyone was accounted for. The co-op has 14 employees, three lived in Greensburg. One of them was missing, and was eventually found at a local hospital. He had a piece of wood embedded in his shoulder that required surgery, and is now recovering.

"Employees come first," Collins says. "We look for danger to people and property. Then we take care of the damage to everything else.

"After we established that all employees were accounted for, my biggest concerns were the anhydrous and propane tanks. Sure enough, both manifolds had been knocked off the anhydrous tank and the pop-off valve was off the propane tank."

One of the employees knew of an oil field supplier in the area and was able to get what they needed to close the two tanks. Their attention turned to chemicals stored at the site -- fertilizer, pesticides and others.

"The chemical shed was destroyed," Collins says. "But the tanks were still there. Three tanks were blown over, but only one, containing Roundup, spilled. This is especially good considering that it rained for three days after the tornado."

Whalen immediately began identifying parts of the business that could be salvaged. The tornado blew the caps off the grain elevator, so taking care of wet grain became a priority as they worked to salvage inventory.

After helping the co-op mitigate losses and keep some of their operations running by using other locations, Whalen helped them set up temporary offices and place ads in local newspapers to let their customers know they are still in business.

"It's overwhelming in those first days. There is so much going through their minds. We help them see a bigger picture," Whalen explained. "We help them make sense of what has happened, but we also help control expenses by guiding them to cost effective alternatives."

After the most powerful tornado to hit American soil in eight years drilled its deadly path across Greensburg, Kansas, the only business left standing was the concrete grain elevator belonging to the Southern Plains Cooperative.

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