A tornado-razed town is rebuilding green


From hospital to power plant, Greensburg, Kansas residents are building the model of the future.


By Eric Mack


Tornado damage. Photo: Johanna DeBiase

Monday night Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius delivered the Democratic response to President Bush's final State of the Union address. In her rebuttal, she pointed to Greensburg, Kansas - a town leveled by a tornado nine months ago and now rebuilding green – as a national call to environmental action. Plenty reporter Eric Mack visited Greensburg this month to take stock of its eco-comeback.

Last May, some 123 tornadoes were spawned from a sprawling storm over the country’s midsection in a matter of just three days. The most powerful spanned a monstrous 1.7 miles wide and blew at more than 205 miles per hour. When it touched the ground on the evening of May 4, it spun right down Main Street in Greensburg, Kansas, killing 11 and all but destroying the town that is home to 1,400.

Some eight months after the storm, what remains is block after block of crumbling porch steps leading to nothing but empty foundations, the hundred-year old houses now piles of debris. There’s a bus flipped on its side, a flattened water heater, mounds of branches stripped from the twisted trunks of trees that somehow remained rooted during the gale.

Despite the near total devastation of the town, it became apparent during my stay there this January that Greensburg is not the sad, grieving place you would expect. A wealth of energy and optimism has arisen here along with many residents’ hopes to rebuild as the “Greenest Town in America” - an energy-efficient, low carbon-emitting, sustainable phoenix, powered, at least in part, by the forces of nature that once reduced it to rubble.

“About a week or two after the storm, I was talking with our previous mayor,” recalls Greensburg City Manager Steve Hewitt. “We said ‘There’s an opportunity here. We can do whatever we want to start fresh and make this town over with new parks and new buildings, so why not go green?’”

Soon afterwards, Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius came to visit and threw her support behind the idea of a new “Greensburg Greentown,” as the project has come to be known. 

“I see us as being kind of a living science museum,” says Daniel Wallach, director of Greensburg Greentown, a non-profit that was formed to help the town make the ‘green dream’ come true. “People are going to be able to come from around the country and see a model community of the future, and in a scale that you can’t do in a big city.”

Wallach’s organization is also shouldering some of the burden in raising the other kind of ‘green.’ The town will need to come up with several million of the $45 to $60 million required for rebuilding and greening city buildings and services. FEMA only covers 75 percent of the expense to return facilities to their pre-storm condition.

 “A lot of those buildings were pretty old, says City Treasurer Pam Reves. “They weren't worth much, so we're looking at other sources like loans, state help and donations.

So far, the plans include more than a dozen new buildings that meet the LEED standards from the US Green Building Council (USGBC). In December, Greensburg’s city council passed a resolution requiring all major city buildings attain LEED Platinum status – the USGBC’s highest standards for efficiency and sustainability – making it the first city to do so. Other businesses in town are getting in on the action, too: the General Motors dealership is rebuilding as a model green dealership to LEED-equivalent standards with support from GM headquarters; the Baptist Church is coming back LEED Platinum; a senior housing project is pursuing LEED Gold certification; so is  the hospital, John Deere dealership, and banks. Plenty of local residents have caught the green building bug as well. And in perhaps the greatest irony, there’s also talk of harnessing wind power for the community’s energy needs.

BNIM Architects of Kansas City is working with the town on a master plan for rebuilding. So far, possibilities for power generation include an industrial wind farm outside town or smaller turbines throughout town.

“We knew we had an old power plant and we couldn’t rebuild another diesel plant and be green,” says Hewitt. “So you say –‘What’s out here?’ Well, we’ve been talking about wind for years.”

A BNIM spokesperson recently told local media that Google was conducting feasibility studies for a wind-powered facility in the area, but so far, Google has refused to confirm any such plans.

While it’s tough to look beyond the clutter of catastrophe here at first, spend a few hours around town and the evidence of Greensburg’s rebirth is everywhere. Power lines are back up, a few modular homes have been plopped down on lots here and there, and the sound of pounding hammers and heavy machinery is ubiquitous.

I ducked down a side street as the sun was getting low in the sky on a Friday evening, and found crews still hard at work on a new home being built out of ICF (Insulated Concrete Forms) blocks, an energy efficient material popular among green builders. Supervising the site was owner and long-time Greensburg resident Farrell Allison, who lost his hundred-year old house on the other side of town. After the storm, he and his wife decided to move closer to Main Street, where they bought a lot from friends who had decided it was time to leave Greensburg.

“I’m just always interested in building and I told my wife probably fifteen years ago that if we ever had a chance to build again, I’m going to do it this way.”

Allison gave me an enthusiastic tour of his plans, from the new garage also made of ICF blocks, to the potential for geothermal heat on the property, right down to the energy-efficient windows he’s planning to put in.

Still, not everyone in town is buying into all the hype, and there certainly is plenty of it to go around. A film crew has been in town for the past few months working on a new documentary series about Greensburg for the Discovery Networks, to be produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, and a reporter from Time Magazine was making the rounds the same week I visited. Since the storm, and the buzz generated by the ‘Greentown’ concept, most people in town have grown accustomed to speaking with the media, but not all of them are big green boosters.

I spent an hour in the Lunch Box, (currently the only restaurant in town – it popped up recently in a double wide trailer next to the makeshift hospital that looks like something out of MASH) where about half of the locals I spoke with either hadn’t heard of the ‘Greentown’ effort, or had no interest in talking about it.

“At first, not everyone in town understood what we meant by ‘green’… There was a perception that it is something that happens in bigger cities, or that it costs a lot of money,” says Reves. “But there are minimal things you can do to go green that people didn’t realize they were already doing, like covering your porch so the sun doesn’t come in or putting in better windows.”

The ‘greening of Greensburg’ is spreading, however, both locally – through meetings, gossip, and even a new ‘Green Club’ at the high school – and nationally thanks to media scrutiny and celebrity and political promotion.

Nonetheless says Hewitt, “Nobody wants to sugar-coat this thing and tell the world everything is perfect in Greensburg, that we woke up one day and ran into no obstacles and rebuilt the town in two years…It’s going to be a struggle and it’s going to be hard, but we have great goals.”

 

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Comments

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