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The Greening of Greensburg

Very early on the morning on May 5, 2007 I got a call from NBC News to hurry from Denver to Greensburg, Kansas.  There had been a huge tornado and the town was devastated.  Go! Go!  When I pulled into the town six hours later I was stunned to see wreckage so complete that even the bark had been pulled off the trees.  These skeleton sentinals stood over a community of people who were lost and dazed.  The EF-5 tornado had 205 mile per hour sustained winds.  Almost the entire town was in ruins.  It was apocalyptic.

The grain elevator was one of the few buildings left standing in Greensburg, Kansas after an EF-5 tornado destroyed the town on May 4, 2007.

It was hard to imagine coming back from that scene or even having the will to rebuild but Greensburg is a plucky town.  One of the residents, who is now the mayor, Bob Dixson, had a sign on his property within days.  It read “Future home of the Dixson family.  We are blessed.”   They were still optimistic.  I guess when you consider that 11 of their neighbors had died and many more were injured, they were among the lucky ones.  I took this photo when I was out there covering the disaster.  The powerful image made me feel hopeful.

The sign in the rubble of Bob Dixson's home in Greensburg, Kansas following the tornado. He and his wife were among the first who decided to rebuild.

The town decided to pull itself out of the rubble by capitalizing on the Green in Greensburg.  They would come back environmentally friendly and create a community that was truly sustainable.   Over the years I had pitched this story to various news outlets with little success but when Budget Travel magazine singled Greensburg out as one of the coolest small towns in America I had a newsworthy hook and HDNet’s Dan Rather Reports said let’s do the story.

Almost five years later I returned to Greensburg and what I saw was as stunning as that first post disaster morning.  The town is cleaned up and there are beautiful new buildings.  The school, the hospital, City Hall and the John Deere dealership are all built back to the highest environmental standard called LEED Platinum.  There is a pretty little Main Street with shops and even a business incubator sponsored by Sun Chips.  People are living in new eco-friendly homes and are saving up to 2/3 on their utility bills.  And there are wind turbines everywhere powering the community.  Imagine using the same wind that destroyed you to help resurrect yourself!

Bob Dixson's eco-friendly rebuilt home today.

Greensburg still has its work cut out for it.  The town has half as many people as it once did but they are determined to repopulate.  Like many of the small towns in rural America, Greensburg had been dying.  But even after the tornado the folks there said we are not dead yet.  So they set out to create a sustainable future, a vision for their tomorrow that would make Greensburg a place children would want to stay, that would be attractive to new families, invite companies to relocate, and create jobs and economic development.

What’s extraordinary here is that folks in Greensburg are very conservative.  These are not tree huggers but they realized that by going green they could build a community of the future.  Today they are an inspiration for other cities reeling from disasters like tornado ravaged Joplin, Missouri and Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  In a time when huge disasters seem to come at us with alarming frequency, Greensburg is showing us how to rebuild and recover.  And the message they send is that green goes with their rural values.  It is just common sense.

The foundation of a new Greensburg is in place.  It has been a gut wrenching process for people who lost everything to imagine something this big when it would have been so much easier to somewhere else.  As the town approaches the fifth anniversary of the tornado this May, they have an enormous amount to be proud about.  I personally would like to go back in five years and see how much farther they have come.  If you are traveling along Highway 54 pull off at Greensburg and see what’s been accomplished.  And if you can’t do that, watch tonight on HDNet’s Dan Rather Reports to see the hard work and ingenuity that brought Greensburg back.

Our Dan Rather Reports crew in Greensburg, Kansas during October 2011 covering the remarkable comeback of the town.

For more information on Vicky Collins visit Teletrends Television Production and Development.

For more of Vicky’s photographs visit Vicky Collins Photography.

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A Son Returns to the Agony of Somalia By K’NAAN

K’NAAN is one of my favorite musicians.  He inspired people around the globe with his rousing “Wavin’ Flag” during the World Cup in South Africa and now he has written a powerful op-ed piece for the New York Times about a journey he took home to his native Somalia.  It’s an urgent call to action in case we are forgetting the famine already.

A Son Returns to the Agony of Somalia

By K’NAAN
K’Naan is a musician and poet.

MOGADISHU, Somalia

ONE has to be careful about stories. Especially true ones. When a story is told the first time, it can find a place in the listener’s heart. If the same story is told over and over, it becomes less like a presence in that chest and more like an X-ray of it.

The beating heart of my story is this: I was born in Mogadishu, Somalia. I had a brief but beautiful childhood filled with poetry from renowned relatives. Then came a bloody end to it, a lesson in life as a Somali: death approaching from the distance, walking into our lives in an experienced stroll.

At 12 years old, I lost three of the boys I grew up with in one burst of machine-gun fire — one pull from the misinformed finger of a boy probably not much older than we were.

But I was also unusually lucky. The bullets hit everyone but me.

Luck follows me through this story; so does my luckless homeland. A few harrowing months later, I found myself on the last commercial flight to leave Somalia before war closed in on the airport. And over the years, fortune turned me into Somalia’s loudest musical voice in the Western Hemisphere.

Meanwhile, my country festered, declining more and more. When I went on a tour of 86 countries last year, I could not perform in the one that mattered most to me. And when my song “Wavin’ Flag” became the theme song for the World Cup that year, the kids back home were not allowed to listen to it on the airwaves. Whatever melodious beauty I found, living in the spotlight, my country produced an opposing harmony in shadows, and the world hardly noticed. But I could still hear it.

And now this terrible year: The worst famine in decades pillages the flesh of the already wounded in Somalia. And the world’s collective humanitarian response has been a defeated shrug. If ever there was a best and worst time to return home, it was now.

So, 20 summers after I left as a child, I found myself on my way back to Somalia with some concerned friends and colleagues. I hoped that my presence would let me shine a light into this darkness. Maybe spare even one life, a life equal to mine, from indifferently wasting away. But I am no statesman, nor a soldier. Just a man made fortunate by the power of the spotlight. And to save someone’s life I am willing to spend some of that capricious currency called celebrity.

We had been told that Mogadishu was still among the most dangerous cities on the planet. So it was quiet on the 15-seat plane from Nairobi. We told nervous jokes at first, then looked to defuse the tension. The one book I had brought was Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast.” I reached a chapter titled “Hunger Was Good Discipline” and stopped. That idea needed some contemplation. The very thing driving so many from their homes in Somalia was drawing me back there. I read on. Hemingway felt that paintings were more beautiful when he was “belly-empty, hollow-hungry.” But he was not speaking of the brutal and criminally organized hunger of East Africa. His hunger was beautiful. It made something of you. The one I was heading into only made ashes of you.

By now, the ride was bumpy. We were flying low, so I could see Baraawe and Merca, beauties of coastal towns that I had always dreamed of visiting. The pilot joked that he would try to fly low enough for my sightseeing, but high enough to avoid the rocket-propelled grenades.

FOR miles along that coast, all you see are paint-like blue water, beautiful sand dunes eroding, and an abandoned effort to cap them with concrete. Everything about Somalia feels like abandonment. The buildings, the peace initiatives, the hopes and dreams of greatness for a nation.

With the ocean to our backs, our wheels touch down in Mogadishu, at the airport I left 20 years before to the surround-sound of heavy artillery pounding the devil’s rhythm. Now there is an eerie calm. We clear immigration, passing citizens with AK-47’s slung over their shoulders.

It’s not a small task to be safe in Mogadishu. So we keep our arrival a secret until after we ride from the airport to the city, a ride on which they say life expectancy is about 17 minutes if you don’t have the kind of security that has been arranged for me.

Over breakfast at a “safe house,” I update my sense of taste with kidney and anjera (a bread), and a perfectly cooled grapefruit drink. Then we journey onto the city streets. It’s the most aesthetically contradictory place on earth — a paradise of paradox. The old Italian and locally inspired architecture is colored by American and Russian artillery paint. Everything stands proudly lopsided.

And then come the makeshift camps set up for the many hungering displaced Somalis. They are the reason I am here. If my voice was an instrument, then I needed it to be an amplifier this time. If my light was true, then I needed it to show its face here, where it counts. Nothing I have ever sung will matter much if I can’t be the mouth of the silenced. But will the world have ears for them, too?

I find the homeless Somalis’ arms open, waiting for the outside world and hoping for a second chance into its fenced heart. I meet a young woman watching over her dying mother, who has been struck by the bullet of famine. The daughter tells me about the journey to Mogadishu — a 200-mile trek across arid, parched land, with adults huddling around children to protect them first. This mother refused to eat her own food in order to feed abandoned children they had picked up along the way. And now she was dying because of that.

The final and most devastating stop for me was Banadir Hospital, where I was born. The doctors are like hostages of hopelessness, surrounded and outnumbered. Mothers hum lullabies holding the skeletal heads of their children. It seems eyes are the only ornament left of their beautiful faces; eyes like lanterns holding out a glimmer of faint hope. Volunteers are doing jobs they aren’t qualified for. The wards are over-crowded, mixing gun wound, malnutrition and cholera patients.

Death is in every corner of this place. It’s lying on the mattresses holding the tiny wrists of half-sleeping children. It’s near the exposed breasts of girls turned mothers too soon. It folds in the cots, all-knowing and silent; its mournful wind swells the black sheets. Here, each life ends sadly, too suddenly and casually to be memorialized.

In this somber and embittered forgotten place, at least they were happy to see I had come.

For more information on Vicky Collins visit Teletrends Television Production and Development.

To see Vicky’s photographs from Africa visit Vicky Collins Photography.


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Uganda’s Child Soldiers: In Their Own Words

As a journalist I’m used to working long days.  Adrenaline keeps you in the game for 16 to 20 hours during breaking news and disaster coverage.  You sleep for three hours then you’re back at it.  But nothing prepared me for how exhausted I would be after just a couple of hours of listening to the painful testimonies of young Ugandan men and women who had been abducted as children and forced to fight in Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army.  We produced the story you see below for HDNet’s World Report when we traveled to Uganda this past June. During our journey we met up with the young men at World Vision’s Children of War Rehabilitation Center in Gulu, Uganda.  We also spoke with Sarah at her home in Orum in the Otuke District of Northern Uganda.  For 20 years kids as young as 9 were taken from their villages, marched to Sudan where they were trained to be soldiers, and sent out in the battlefield whether they were ready or not.  Michael told us how he was forced to kill his own brother.  Justin showed us his body riddled with bullet wounds.  Sarah gave us a tour of the village, pointing out graves including her sister’s.  It was a senseless civil war and the children didn’t even know why they were fighting.  Estimates are that 30,000 children were kidnapped but those are considered conservative.  More than likely the number is over 50,000.  Many spent their entire childhood in captivity and if they were not killed in battle or shot by ruthless commanders, if they survived their wounds and the traumas they witnessed, they might have been lucky enough to escape or be captured by the Ugandan government and sent into the arms of NGO’s like World Vision who work to rehabilitate them so they can be returned to their villages.  It is tough work.  Many of these children come home as young adults after spending the majority of their lives in the bush.  They have been robbed of their education and have little hope for the future.  They need to trust again.  They suffer from post traumatic stress disorder and depression.  One half of them were forced to kill someone.  Communities have mixed feelings about taking them back.  After all, these rebels killed tens of thousands of people and forced almost two million from their homes.  It’s understandable that there are some hard feelings.  Northern Uganda is at peace again and people have returned to their villages.  It’s hard to imagine this terror just a few years ago. But the physical and emotional scars endure for these children.  For their families.  For the people of the region.  And the LRA has not gone away.  Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army has just moved next door where they are traumatizing the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

http://player.vimeo.com/video/15209575?portrait=0&color=ffffff

For more information on Vicky Collins visit http://teletrendstv.com.


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The Grapes of Wrath: The Next Generation

Even with 500 TV channels at our fingertips my 12 year old son, Blair, and I could not come up with a movie to watch.  He manned the remote flipping from title to title while I played God saying “next” and “pass” until we had gone from A to Z.  He grew impatient and started lobbying for “Family Guy” instead.  I was undeterred.  We would come up with a movie to share.  We went backwards from Z towards A and finally stopped on John Ford’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s classic “The Grapes of Wrath.”  Not his first choice for sure but he surrendered to a 70 year old film based on mom’s favorite book of all time.  We settled on his bed in a cuddle and since we started late it took us two evenings to get through it.

I’m sure I watched this epic when I was in middle school or high school yet decades later I’m still in awe of this movie.  It is so honest, so realistic.  It was startling in its simplicity by today’s standards yet that made it even more powerful.  I was struck by the starkness of the landscapes, the grimness of the Depression and the Dust Bowl, the contrasts in black and white and the melodrama of the acting.  The performances by Henry Fonda as a young Tom Joad and especially Oscar award winning Jane Darwell as the beleagured mother trying to keep her family together stay with you long after the final credits.  Compared to 3D films, Pixar and Disney animation and the special effects we have today it was so unsophisticated.

The themes of this great and gritty masterpiece resonate 70 years later.  Oppression of migrants, the cry for economic and social justice, the difficulty of achieving the American dream and the endurance of the spirit over inhumanity and adversity feel every bit as relevant in 2010 as they did in 1940.  But these are just my impressions.  When I asked my son Blair what he thought of the movie he said the big surprise for him was that the protagonist did not win.  He said in movies these days the protagonist always triumphs and that sometimes it spoils things because he knows how the film will end. But at the end of the movie Tom Joad and his family were still suffering. I told him that good guys don’t always win and sometimes in the real world people are bloodied and nobody wins.  There are not always happy endings. For him, “The Grapes of Wrath” was unexpected and for me, well, they just don’t make movies like that anymore.

For more information on Vicky Collins visit http://teletrendstv.com.


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K’Naan: Waving Flag’s Backstory

I love backstories. I love looking behind the scenes at inspirations and motivations that lead to great creativity. Here’s musician and artist K’Naan’s story in his own words on BBC Radio about what led to his epic song “Waving Flag,” which became a rallying cry for earthquake stricken Haiti, and then a joyous anthem for the FIFA World Cup in South Africa.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/news/2010/08/100811_knaan_nh_sl.shtml?s

For more information on Vicky Collins visit http://teletrendstv.com.


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Oil Spill: The Ripple Effect

I finally got to the Gulf coast to work on a story about the oil spill for the PBS Newshour. I didn’t see any oil but what I saw was a a boat load of fear. Correspondent Tom Bearden and I visited Bayou La Batre, Alabama to attend a town hall meeting with Ken Feinberg, the Massachusetts lawyer who must decide how to allocate BP’s 20 billion dollar compensation fund. He has done this kind of work previously for victims of 9/11 and Virginia Tech.  Feinberg was mostly reassuring people that help was on the way and was listening to the concerns among the folks who packed city hall at 7 a.m. on Saturday morning. What struck me was how far reaching this catastrophe is on the people who live in towns that dot the Gulf coast. Bayou La Batre bills itself as the “Seafood Capital of Alabama.”  The oil spill has rippled through the whole community disrupting the entire seafood chain.  Obviously the fishermen have lost the season, then there are the people who store and process the seafood like brothers Bruce and Delane Seaman who had to shut down their oyster shucking plant putting about 40 people out of work.  They don’t expect to ever reopen.  Their customers have gone elsewhere.  Then there are folks like Patrick and Lillie Kraver who own Kraver’s restaurant in Daphne, on the other side of Mobile Bay, that sells the seafood and have seen business tumble by about 40%.  When Tom asked them if they could survive they said “God would provide.”  These are people whose families have worked in the seafood industry for generations.  And then there are the more indirect losses. The man who has a candy and gift store on the beach and has seen his tourist traffic dry up, another man who has watched his real estate property values tank, even the local minister who has seen his offerings cut almost in half. He reminded Ken Feinberg that when everyone leaves the area it will be the churches and faith based organizations that care for fragile residents.  People came from as far away as Pensacola, Florida.  Everyone had a story of loss and hardship and a sense of skepticism deep as the Gulf about whether help was really coming or whether this was more PR.  Most have felt jerked around by British Petroleum and are hoping Ken Feinberg is really here to help make them at least partially whole.  He says he has received claims from 48 states so he has a huge task trying to decide who will be eligible to receive money and who doesn’t qualify.  Unlike a hurricane which comes and goes this catastrophe and its impacts could crush the community for years and everyone needs help to weather the storm and stay afloat.

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/business/july-dec10/compensation_07-27.html

For more information on Vicky Collins visit http://teletrendstv.com.


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River Jordan Redux

In June 2009 I posted a blog about the dire condition of the River Jordan and how a unique collaboration of Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians are cooperating to save it and care for the needs of a parched region.  National Geographic Magazine has done the story “Parting the Waters” for its April edition on Water.  It showcases the environmental dilemma, the political issues that have led to it, and how Friends of the Earth Middle East is committed to solving the crisis.  What’s striking about the story is that, despite the lack of cooperation in the Mideast, people are managing to collaborate over water.  They are fighting together for a resource they can’t live without.     

http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2010/04/parting-the-waters/belt-text

For more information on Vicky Collins visit http://teletrendstv.com.


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Satan Responds to Pat Robertson

In an editorial in the Minneapolis Star Tribune a very clever Lily Coyle took on Pat Robertson of CBN’s 700 Club.  You know, the guy who said the earthquake in Haiti happened because former slaves made a pact with the Devil in 1791 in order to overthrow the French.  I think she’s got the voice of Satan down, don’t you?  For what it’s worth I’ve never believed in a vengeful God either.  Earthquakes, like shit, happen.  These things are not God’s will.  Would love to hear your comments on this one. 

Dear Pat Robertson, I know that you know that all press is good press, so I appreciate the shout-out. And you make God look like a big mean bully who kicks people when they are down, so I’m all over that action. But when you say that Haiti has made a pact with me, it is totally humiliating. I may be evil incarnate, but I’m no welcher. The way you put it, making a deal with me leaves folks desperate and impoverished. Sure, in the afterlife, but when I strike bargains with people, they first get something here on earth — glamour, beauty, talent, wealth, fame, glory, a golden fiddle. Those Haitians have nothing, and I mean nothing. And that was before the earthquake. Haven’t you seen “Crossroads”? Or “Damn Yankees”? If I had a thing going with Haiti, there’d be lots of banks, skyscrapers, SUVs, exclusive night clubs, Botox — that kind of thing. An 80 percent poverty rate is so not my style. Nothing against it — I’m just saying: Not how I roll. You’re doing great work, Pat, and I don’t want to clip your wings — just, come on, you’re making me look bad. And not the good kind of bad. Keep blaming God. That’s working. But leave me out of it, please. Or we may need to renegotiate your own contract. Best, Satan

LILY COYLE, MINNEAPOLIS

For more information on Vicky Collins visit http://teletrendstv.com

 


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Haiti Earthquake: Telling the Story

Woman in Rubble of Haiti Earthquake

The Los Angeles Times and the New York Times are doing a great job reporting a backstory in Haiti.  Their journalists are telling how broadcast and cable news handled the incredible logistics of deploying their people to Port Au Prince to cover the story.  This is not to diminish the role of Facebook, Twitter, blogs, YouTube and cell phones, but to get people like Anderson Cooper of CNN, Brian Williams of NBC and Katie Couric of CBS, along with their entourages, to a country with no infrastructure and then see them on the air within 24 hours after the disaster is an incredible feat.  I am watching my friend Kerry Sanders, who is based in Miami for NBC News, cover this story and it looks like he is taking this disaster personally.  Through exhausted eyes and a sick heart, he is reporting about a country and people he cares about deeply.  In one poignant report he said “this city is now the saddest place on Earth.”

What strikes me about the comments following these articles is the vitriol and nastiness aimed at these first responders.  Sure these are the “celebrities” of the networks but they go because this is a story of such tremendous magnitude and their reporting is touching people who are in turn helping to open the floodgates of aid to Haiti at this most terrible time.  I am shocked that anyone would be critical of these efforts.  They are allowing all of us to bear witness and stay informed.  They are moving us to reach for our wallets when we are powerless to do anything else.  Who cares if the broadcasts are rough?  Who cares if Al Roker is doing the weather from the tarmac?  He is also interviewing the people from all over the world who are arriving to roll up their sleeves.  Why shouldn’t Ann Curry be desperately trying to get on a chopper?  Why shouldn’t she rush to the scene along with rescuers and NGOs to cover one of the greatest catastrophes ever?  They’re not getting in the way.  They’re making sure the Haitian people are not forgotten.  I wish I was there with them.  Get real, people.     

http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/la-et-haiti-media14-2010jan14,0,3499947.story

http://mediadecoder.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/01/14/worlds-news-media-enters-port-au-prince/

For more information on Vicky Collins visit http://teletrendstv.com.


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The Faith Club Part 3

Three years ago I was on the road in Buenos Aires, Argentina during Rosh Hashanah.  As is my custom when I am traveling I find myself a service wherever I am.  One year I celebrated Rosh Hashanah in Wilmington, North Carolina while covering a hurricane.  Another time I spent Passover in Kampala, Uganda where we substituted Indian naan for matzah.  There was Yom Kippur in Savannah, Georgia and a seder at a college in Walla Walla, Washington while working on a story about Bigfoot.

Surely the service on Rosh Hashanah morning at the Libertad synagogue in Buenos Aires was one of the most memorable of all.  The truth is I did not understand a word.  It was all in Spanish and Hebrew.  What set it apart was the trio of cantors, two men and a woman, whose harmonies throughout the entire service made it seem more like musical theatre.  Tears streamed down my face.  It was so very beautiful.  And then there was wonderful Mania who made this stranger feel welcome.  The four hours flew by.  It was the most inspiring high holiday service I had ever attended and I long for my spirit to be filled again the way it was on that day in Buenos Aires.

One of the things that always gives me pause during the Jewish holidays is the idea that Jews all over the world are saying the same prayers at the same time.  I get goosebumps to think that on the day I’m saying the closing line of the Passover seder, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” it is also being said by my family in Israel.  As the ominous prayers are recited on Yom Kippur and “the gates begin to close” on the day of atonement that same urgency is being felt on continents half a world away.

The communal nature of these moments appeal to me.  In the book “The Faith Club,” Ranya, a Muslim, Suzanne, a Christian, and Priscilla, a Jew, came together for years to discuss and dissect their respective religions.  They invited each other to their homes and services and tore down the walls that divided them.  They pushed through their fears and differences to find similar truths in all of their faiths.  They agreed that God was loving and forgiving, that prayers were calls to action in all of their traditions, and that goodness and evil co-exist but light triumphs over darkness.  They concluded that human decisions, not God’s, cause suffering in our world and that dogma gets in the way of spirituality.  I feel like I’m in lockstep with these women when it comes to faith.   

How good would it be if we could all come together like these courageous women?  Wouldn’t it be something if we could leave our comfort zones, whether in our homes, in our churches and temples, or even in our countries and celebrate our faiths with people who are different than we are.  My richest experiences have been praising God in unfamiliar places, praying wherever I am, and worshipping with strangers.  Shalom. Ah Salamu Alaykum.  Go in peace.  At the end of the day, no matter who says it or where in the world it is said, we all wish for blessings and peace.

For more information on Vicky Collins visit http://teletrendstv.com.