by Frank Morris
NPR – All Things Considered
December 27, 2007 · Greensburg, a tiny town on the vast, flat prairie of western Kansas, is at the center of a grand experiment. In May, a tornado obliterated nearly every house, tree and business.
The twister — among the strongest on record — killed 10 people and displaced almost 1,400 residents. The community had been in steep decline before the storm, but city leaders quickly saw opportunity in the disaster. Perhaps they could revive Greensburg and sustain it for generations to come by making it the greenest town in America.
Less than two days after the tornado, as huge machines began to tear into the wreckage of his hometown, School Superintendent Darren Hedrick managed to put a brave face on.
“Towns are about people, they’re not about buildings. And it’s a huge opportunity to rebuild — not just rebuild it the way it was but maybe rebuild it a little bit better than it was,” Hedrick said.
Though buildings, books and records were gone, Hedrick pledged to open school on time in the fall.
First-graders recently celebrated the end of an odd semester. Classes were held in small, white trailers lined up a quarter-mile from where most of the students now live. Their teacher, Laura Proser, says winter break marks a welcome milestone.
“We just got our stoplight yesterday, and everybody’s excited about that,” Proser said.
Townhomes are beginning to rise from the ragged tree trunks, weeds and ruins off Main Street. They mark a radical departure from traditional low-income housing, according to Duncan Prahl, who is from Pennsylvania and on contract with the National Renewable Energy Labs.
The townhomes are “LEED gold certified,” Prahl said. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. The rating is based on a system which rewards energy savings. Prahl said gold certification means these places will be almost twice as efficient as they used to be.
Building to this standard for working-class families is unusual, Prahl said.
“A lot of what’s happening in Greensburg is some of the first in the country,” Prahl said.
Danny Wallach began rallying the effort to make the city more energy efficient just days after the tornado hit.
“I mean, it literally struck me, green — Greensburg — and at the time, I wasn’t aware of just how perfect the timing in the national green movement was,” Wallach said. Wallach heads Greensburg Greentown, a nonprofit group leading the push for environmental sustainability in Greensburg.
Leaders in the environmental movement have embraced the plan. The Discovery Channel is filming a show here, called Greensburg Eco-town, and green architects are working overtime.
Wallach says residents here embraced environmental sustainability as good old-fashioned thrift and independence.
“They really get it, and they say ‘OK, it’s not this crazy tree-hugger agenda.’ It’s common sense, and it’s what these people are really about,” Wallach said.
About 43 miles from Greensburg is a new wind farm in Spearville, Kan.
Lynn Billman of the Department of Energy believes that the force of nature that obliterated Greensburg could play a major role in sustaining its attempt to recover.
One of the turbines on the wind farm would be plenty to power Greensburg most days. Billman says the area also has great solar and geothermal potential. Even manure from nearby feedlots could be tapped for energy.
As the city weighs options for generating its own energy, it’s also getting serious about saving it. Greensburg City Council resolved that all new city buildings should meet the very highest environmental standard — LEED platinum.
City manager Steve Hewitt says the town will come back stronger than ever. Before the tornado, Greensburg was shedding 2 percent of its population every year. Those who left for college rarely returned to stay. It was death by a thousand cuts.
Now, Hewitt is thinking big: office space for new businesses, the high school and an art center are all being designed LEED platinum, a move he hopes will boost Greensburg’s appeal.
“Maybe it’s a little crazy. There’s only 14 platinum buildings in the country. When it’s all said and done, I’d like four or five here in Greensburg,” Hewitt said.
An energy company has announced plans to build a biodiesel plant in Greensburg. Google is considering building a wind-powered data center here. Several other companies are watching closely. Meanwhile, 100 new homes are going up, all of them more efficient than those they replaced.
About 200 Greensburg residents — one-third of the town’s current population — recently congregated in the new school gym to talk over the progress.
Robert Kilgore said he and his wife are rebuilding their home with extra insulation, better windows and hot water on demand.
“To be successful, we just have to do it,” Kilgore said.
But there’s a lot of uncertainty. FEMA will cover 75 percent of the cost of restoring city buildings to their pre-storm level. Other federal and state grants will help cover most of the rest of that cost.
But city leaders aren’t talking about restoring things to their old level.
Resident Ed Stauth fears a big tax hike.
“My wife says, ‘Oh don’t be negative,’ but doggone it, I look at it from the financial part of it. I’m all for everything for Greensburg, but everything’s got its price. There’s no freebies,” Stauth said.
Despite its murky future, Greensburg has already done something few small towns can: inspire its youth.
“Before the tornado, I was not going to come back. I was going to go to college, and who knows where. This community was dying. Now I’m definitely coming back, and I know a good majority of my friends are,” said 15-year-old Levi Schmidt.
For all the optimism here though, nobody thinks that reviving Greensburg is going to be easy.
School superintendent Hedrick remains optimistic, though perhaps a bit more circumspect now.
“A lot of little towns are dying a slow death,” Hedrick said. “We had a fork put in us pretty hard. We have to find a way to resurrect, and we hope we’re making good decisions to do that.”
As Greensburg tries to leverage environmentalism to rebuild and sustain itself in the wake of near total destruction, it just may unwittingly be writing a modern survival guide for rural America.