First EF-5 tornado still changing lives in Greensburg, Kansas, 15 years later

FOX Weather's Kendall Smith went back to her family's town where the tornado killed 11 people and injured 63

It's been 15 years since a 1.7-mile-wide tornado destroyed nearly the entire town of Greensburg, Kansas.  

On May 4, 2007, the tornado hit the southwest Kansas town, killing 11 people and injuring 63. 

The tornado was rated an EF-5 with estimated winds of 205 mph. The National Weather Service says it was the first EF-5 recorded since the Enhanced Fujita Scale was implemented earlier that year on February 1. 

The tornado was on the ground for just over an hour and traveled 28.8 miles. It was estimated that the tornado wiped out 95% of Greensburg, causing $250 million in damage. 

The NWS said that around 800,000 cubic yards of debris had to be removed after the devastation, and utilities had to be reconstructed.

The storm had a 26-minute lead time, with the first tornado warning issued for the town at 9:19 p.m. The tornado entered the south side of Greensburg at 9:45 p.m.

The storm cell that produced the Greensburg tornado also produced 19 other tornadoes. 

Inspiring a future meteorologist

FOX Weather's Kendall Smith was just a child when the EF-5 tornado decimated her family's town. 

"At ten years old, I was old enough to understand what had happened to my family, but not quite old enough to fully grasp and handle the emotional aspect of it," Smith explains.

She remembers the aftermath vividly.

"The devastation we witnessed is hard to put into words. It looked like a bomb had gone off, and nothing in the town was recognizable," Smith said. "When you actually stand in the rubble of what used to be the house you grew up playing in as a child, you just cry. I would never wish something like that on anyone."

Something that jarring could scar anyone. Smith says her fear of storms grew to where she'd have panic attacks anytime she heard sirens.

But it was thanks to her parents that her fear of storms grew to one of love.

"They decided to educate me on the weather so that if I knew what was going on, then maybe I wouldn't be quite as fearful of it," Smith said. "I became obsessed with the weather and ultimately became an amateur meteorologist by the time I was in high school."

Knowing the devastation of what happened to her town, she knew what she wanted to do.  

"My purpose has and always will be as a meteorologist to help protect people just like those meteorologists did for my family that night," she said.

Now, as a meteorologist, Smith went back to visit the town where her family still lives to tell the stories of those who were impacted. 

"I had the opportunity to meet with individuals whose stories have never before been told," she said. "I also got to hear for the first time the radio traffic from the first responders that night as the tornado barreled through the town."

Make sure to catch 'Return to Greensburg' airing on FOX Weather Wednesday, May 4, at 1 p.m. and 8 p.m. ET.